LIMBURG, Germany, Dec 31 (Reuters) – German politicians and church leaders mourned the death of former Pope Benedict on Saturday, hailing his importance to his homeland as Germany’s first pontiff in 1,000 years.

“Today is a day of mourning, of farewell, but for me personally even more one of gratitude and respect for a great man of the Church,” said Georg Baetzing, who is bishop of Limburg and head of the German Bishops’ Conference.

Describing him as a brilliant theologian, Baetzing said Benedict was nonetheless humble and cautious – not born to take the stage but rather to reflect on the considerations of faith.

Benedict, who died earlier on Saturday aged 95, resigned in 2013, the first pontiff in 600 years to do so. Explaining the shock decision, Benedict said he was too old and frail to lead the Roman Catholic Church and its more than 1.3 billion members.

“Some have said that this was perhaps the greatest act of his life. That he made it clear that the office and the person are not one,” Baetzing said.

Born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger on April 16, 1927, in the Bavarian village of Marktl, Benedict became a priest in 1951 and succeeded Pope John Paul II following his death in 2005.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Twitter that the Catholic Church had lost a formative figure and clever theologian, adding that as a German he had been a special leader of the Church, not just to its members in Germany.

While saying he was deeply touched by Benedict’s death, Bavaria premier Markus Soeder said the former pontiff “also had to face the responsibility for difficult phases in his ministry”, referring to sexual abuse scandals within the Church that hounded most of his papacy.

At the same time, he was seen as an uncompromising conservative and guardian of tradition, which continues to draw ire from the more progressive parts of the Church.

Christian Weisner, of the “Wir sind Kirche” (We are Church) initiative that represents reformist endeavours within the Catholic Church, said the election of a pope from Germany, the country that caused World War Two, had been a significant step.

But he added that Benedict’s handling of the Church’s sexual abuse scandals had disturbed and irritated many members, including conservatives.

“In the course of time, one has seen what a reactionary pope he was,” he said.

Reporting by Timm Reichert, Christoph Steitz and Susanne Neumayer-Remter
Editing by Helen Popper

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By Reuters