It was April 19, 2005 and the world’s eyes were fixed on a small chimney jutting out from the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Within the dazzling walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, a papal conclave was convened and casting votes for a new Bishop of Rome. An international icon and beloved shepherd to the Catholic faithful, Pope John Paul II, had died after suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. In his wake, Rome and the world witnessed a holy funeral of emotionally and spiritually-epic proportions. After twenty-six profound years, a deep chasm opened in the Seat of Peter. Now, untold millions worldwide sought to discern whether the smoke emitting from the chapel chimney was “fumata nera” (black smoke) indicating a failed vote or “fumata blanca” (white smoke) indicating a successful selection of a new Pope. Even the most hard-bitten atheist could not deny that there was something mesmerizing about this process. Perhaps the cynic could best characterize this spectacle as medieval showmanship at its finest, but to the believing Catholic (a title I resolutely claim) it was an ancient practice infiltrated with the Holy Spirit to arrive at a Successor of Peter, the Rock upon which the Church was and continues to be built. It was extraordinary. And it wouldn’t take long.
After merely four ballots, the masses saw what they eagerly anticipated: fumata blanca. Cheers erupted. Shortly thereafter, an anxious wait would ensue with fixed attention on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. Cardinal Medina Estevez would emerge and announce to the world in numerous languages, “Dear Brothers and Sisters…” followed by the universal Latin, “Habemus Papum!”. Indeed, “We have a Pope.” And so we would meet for the first time, Pope Benedict XVI.
In 2005, I was still four years away from becoming a Catholic. Still a Lutheran at the time, my wife and I were alternating Sundays between Catholic and Lutheran churches. Admittedly, I had drawn closer to the Catholic Church in the nine years since my wife and I had been together, and my appreciation for the papacy (having once been, instead, a deep skepticism) had grown over years by watching, reading and comprehending the figure of Pope John Paul II (please see my previous post “Man of the Year – Why the Pope Matters http://www.patheos.com/blogs/acatholicthinker/2012/12/02/man-of-the-year-why-the-pope-matters/). However, in spite of the inexorable draw I felt toward Catholicism, it was very hard to ignore the relentless negative commentary offered by the media’s opinion-makers on who Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, really was. “God’s Rottweiler”, “The Panzer Pope”, “The Inquisitor” were just a few of the derogatory names spilling out in the weeks in advance and following the selection of this new pope. Being relatively new to the papal selection proceedings (and especially as a fledgling and prospective Catholic), I found this offensive and simultaneously unsettling. It was offensive that this holy and ancient practice was being tainted by such a careless casting of aspersions and epithets. And yet, it was unsettling because I wasn’t wholeheartedly immune to the influence of the “storied” media opinion-makers. After all, at one point, I myself carried unfounded biases against the Catholic Church. So it had to be asked – What was the world – what was I – to make of Pope Benedict XVI? It was from this point forward that Pope Benedict XVI would surprise me…again and again.
One of the first lessons I learned about the Catholic Church is that you have to experience it to understand it. As I’ve written in previous posts on this site, I carried a number of latent biases with me as a young Protestant. These latent biases became active when my wife and I first discussed our religious future together in the late 1990s. In spite of my proud and stubborn stances, it wasn’t until I attended Catholic Mass Sunday after Sunday, read the Catholic Catechism, explored the works of the saints and apologists, prayed, and spoke with wise and kind members of the Faith that I truly grasped the wonder and beauty of Catholicism. This process taught me a thing or two – most notably that you need to find out the truth for yourself. It isn’t easy. It requires time, energy, and devotion to finding answers that you may not like or may prove you wrong. But it is the most valuable and rewarding endeavor you could ever embark on. In a few words, it utterly humbles you. If this process served me well in exploring Catholicism (in spite of all the criticism surrounding it as a Faith), shouldn’t it serve me well in understanding the Church’s new leadership? Pope John Paul II surprised and impressed me once I had explored his biography and writings. Perhaps Pope Benedict XVI would as well. Indeed…he would.
Joseph Ratzinger would grow up under very difficult and trying circumstances. Raised in Hitler’s Germany by strong Catholic, anti-Nazi parents was quite difficult and led to great risk and moral dilemmas. Conscripted as a child to the Hitler Youth and ultimately to an anti-aircraft brigade (age 16) during the war, Joseph would ultimately desert (at great risk) toward the war’s end. Some of the accusations of Joseph as a complicit Nazi were scurrilous [an example being the doctoring of the picture of the young priest Ratzinger giving his first blessing so as to make it look like a Nazi salute].
Joseph would pursue the priesthood and demonstrate an early brilliance in theology. In short order, he would become a widely respected academic theologian and pivotal player at Vatican II.
His voice for reform in the wake of Vatican II would transform in the tumult of the 1960s where he perceived a cultural and religious untethering from church authority that risked rupture with the accumulated spirit and wisdom of two thousand years. In response to a more liberal, reform-minded journal, Concilium, Joseph would co-found a more conservative, traditional journal, Communio, with some of the brightest Catholic thinkers of the 20th century.
His writings were legion and would range from the liturgy to sacred art, from the cardinal virtues to the role of faith and reason. Through the end of his papacy, he would write at least 66 books, thousands of articles and hundreds of speeches. His work has been respected across religious, national, and cultural boundaries. He has been known for a willingness to thoughtfully and politely dialogue even with those whom he would most disagree. Given his devotion to his faith and his inquisitive, yet sensitive demeanor, Joseph would rise quickly to leadership positions within the Church. Joseph Ratzinger was an intellectual and spiritual giant.
As Pope, Benedict XVI would surprise with speeches and writings, projects and gestures that one may not have anticipated. His speech just prior to conclave (when, technically, still a Cardinal) on the “Dictatorship of Relativism” articulated the ideological dangers of moral relativism:
“How many winds of doctrine we have known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking… The small boat of thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – thrown from one extreme to the other: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism, and so forth. Every day new sects are created and what Saint Paul says about human trickery comes true, with cunning which tries to draw those into error (cf Eph 4, 14). Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and “swept along by every wind of teaching”, looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.
However, we have a different goal: the Son of God, true man. He is the measure of true humanism. Being an “Adult” means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today’s fashions or the latest novelties. A faith which is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ is adult and mature. It is this friendship which opens us up to all that is good and gives us the knowledge to judge true from false, and deceit from truth. We must become mature in this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith.”
The famous Regensburg lecture was a brilliant dissertation on the inextricable link between faith and reason. The Pope would submit that irrational, damaging, and destructive acts performed in the name of God are, in fact, utterly contrary to God’s faithful and reasonable nature:
“[Here are the] reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, [the emperor - in Pope Benedict's example] says, “is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”
His encyclicals were devoted to the supernatural virtues of Love and Hope. Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) is considered a masterpiece of reconciliation between Catholic ethics and business economy. He sought to reinforce Vatican II as continuous with and not a rupture from the pre-Conciliar Church by reinvigorating the practice of the Latin (Tridentine) Mass, reforming the Roman Missal to be more faithful to the original Latin, and inviting more traditional sacred music into the liturgy. The Pope sought to reach out to the disaffected such as Society of St. Pius X as well as extending reconciliation with priests/churches of the Anglican communion. At the same time, he held firmly that religious orders must avoid abuses and hold themselves faithful to Church teachings. He built further bridges in dialogues with the Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim communities. Among many, the Pope beatified John Henry Newman and Pope John Paul II and canonized Native American Kateri Tekakwitha. He presided over the annual Youth Days with massive attendance, the publication of the first Youth Catechism, and offered up the first Papal “tweets”. He would also importantly and indispensably meet with, grieve with, and apologize for the horrors of the priest sex abuse scandals within the Church. For what was originally considered to be a short-lived, minimally consequential, caretaker papacy, Pope Benedict XVI dramatically surprised and delighted me.
Perhaps, however, what I have found most surprising and endearing is Pope Benedict XVI’s approachability. In the face of caustic and withering criticism that, upon further honest examination, was unfair and unjustified, the Pope has proved to be a very decent person. Journalist Vittorio Messori, author Peter Seewald, or atheist politician Marcello Pera, were all struck, contrary to their preconceived notions, at how kind, thoughtful, and approachable they found Joseph Ratzinger. I encountered this same man – Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI – when reading Peter Seewald’s trilogy of book-length interviews, God and the World, Salt of the Earth, and Light of the World. It is easy to become completely transfixed by the kind, clear, and thoughtful answers of an intellectual giant who sees himself as a humble servant of the Lord.
And so now it is the last day of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy. Now we prepare for another conclave and watch again for fumata blanca. And as I reflect on the Pope who was presented to me by the opinion-makers while comparing him to the Pope I met for myself, the questions can be raised, “Are you surprised? Are you surprised by the Pope you found, you learned from, you prayed for, and you converted under?” And my answer would be: Yes and No. Yes, I thought I could trust the opinion-makers to be somewhat correct on who Pope Benedict XVI was and who he would become. They were wrong and so I was surprised. But, more importantly, No, because surprise is what this Faith is all about. It is a Faith where disciples ask to walk on water and multiply loaves and fishes, where lepers are healed and the condemned are released, where you love even though it is unreasonable and you believe even when it is unbelievable. It is a Faith of confounding, maddening, brilliant, glorious surprises. And Pope Benedict XVI has been another one of them. Why shouldn’t he be? Thank you, Holy Father, and God go with you.