Pope Benedict is very frail now – the first Pope Emeritus in the history of the Church, waiting in silence and peace for the Lord. He is part of our future.
His wonderful intelligence has served and will continue to serve the Church: science and religion, physics and metaphysics, thought and prayer, the beauty of his language, the depth of his thinking became his theology: “Theology is pondering what God has said and thought before us.”
He followed St Augustine’s way to God: Greek philosophers spoke of “The beginning was the word” and the Christian Church proclaims “The Word became flesh” – bringing together of philosophy and theology. Simple and profound. How did Joseph Ratzinger grow up and survive in an atheistic system like Naziism? As Pope John Paul II did – believing in a God of love crucified by the cruelty of human authority but offering all to a loving God of mercy. Resist and forgive became the inspiring message from both of them and they lived aware of evil, heartbroken by its Soviet Communism and German Naziism systems that drew the hearts of those who choose evil with which to conquer and overpower rather than love.
As a child he saw crucifixes disappearing from the schools, priests imprisoned for preaching God in opposition to Hitler, saw the insanity of creating a “new man” without God which ended in terror and apocalyptic devastation. Stalin and Hitler are the most public and vivid faces in history who lead to hell on earth, and they had many willing followers. The young boy saw the horror, shared the suffering. He was being prepared.
Pope John XXIII praised the way that the young Joseph Ratzinger understood the purpose of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) – no one more clearly expressed that longing in Pope John’s heart to open the Church to a suffering world, to other faiths, churches and non-believers. Ratzinger wrote a speech for Cardinal Frings to speak at the beginning of the Council – and the Pope said how beautifully that speech expressed his thoughts.
In 2005 at the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum in Rome he cried out “How much filth there is in the Church and even in the priesthood which ought to belong entirely to God,” words written by Pope John Paul II for Cardinal Ratzinger to read on his behalf – the Pope himself too weak to lead those Stations.
Benedict and the Pope knew that the true problems of the Church lay not in falling membership but in a dwindling faith. The fading of Christian consciousness had caused the crisis – lukewarmness in prayer and worship, neglect of mission. “God is disappearing from the human horizon, and by extinguishing the light of God humanity is losing its bearings,” he said.
Benedict reached out to other Faiths, being the second pope (John Paul II the first) to visit a mosque, the first pope to attend a Protestant service. He appointed a Protestant as chairman of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, brought a Muslim professor to the Pontifical University, and Jewish-Church relations remained among his primary concerns. The World Jewish Congress said that Pope Benedict had brought about a decisive and historic change in the Catholic Church towards Judaism – helping create a better relationship than at any other prior moment in history.
Exhausted by eight years of the papacy, 2005-2013, Pope Benedict resigned at the age of eighty-six. He could do no more. We pray for him.
Peter Seewald finishes his book-length interview (on which my letter to you is based) by asking: “Love is one of your central themes, as a student, as professor, as pope. Where was love in your life? Where have you felt love, touched love, experienced love with profound feelings?”
The Pope replied, “If one has not felt it, then one cannot talk about it. I felt it first at home with my father, my mother, my siblings. And, well, I wouldn’t like to go into private details now but I have been touched by it in different dimensions and forms. To be loved and to love another are things I have increasingly recognised as fundamental, so that one can live, so that one can say yes to oneself, so that one can say yes to another.”
God bless him and us, the people of God,
(26th September 2021)