The Death of the German Pope

The image of Joseph A. Ratzinger still wavers, distorted by the hatred and favour of opposing parties. Two hundred thousand had come to say goodbye to the deceased. Banners at the funeral service demanded ‹Santo subito,› immediate canonization, obituaries spoke of a ‹mishap› pope who was accused of rhetorical provocation of the Petersburg speech, the return to the Latin Mass, the reintegration of a Holocaust-denying clergyman into the church, the intrigues including the theft of documents by his own valet, which was seen as weakness and a detachment from reality.

Communicating the Fundamental Questions of Faith

The media world seems to agree that Pope Benedict XVI is a ‹Theologian Pope.› But is that true? Does a pope have to be a media star, like Benedict’s predecessor? Or should he better use charisma and appearances to play politics, to mark media presence, to spellbind the masses? None of that was Benedict’s thing. What brought his books – which became bestsellers worldwide – many readers early on, and his Wednesday audiences, his speeches, and exegeses a growing, attentive audience, was not theology at all. It was the courage to communicate fundamental questions of faith, the message of the Apostles, and publicly, understandably as a witness of a lifelong, deep-rooted faith in the uniqueness of the Christian message.

This was new and unusual for a man who, as ‹God’s Rottweiler› and ‹Tank Cardinal,› had been preceded by his reputation as an unteachable guardian of dogmatic theology and long-standing prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He had not aspired to this office, and when he was removed from it, from behind this picture the smiling, thoughtfully spoken, almost shy before a crowd 78-year-old Benedict emerged, as if relieved of pressure. He had also not aspired to the papal office. He entered it out of obedience and loyalty to his church – which was his family – and to John Paul II, who refused to release Ratzinger into requested retirement – despite blindness in one eye, and despite a stroke and an embolism. It was a stroke of fate: the two belonged together for decades. Throughout his life, Ratzinger had close, protective contact with very few people: his sister, who ran his household; his brother, with whom he had taken ordination; his private secretary, who was at his side until his death, and his predecessor. The fact that Ratzinger was the world’s best-connected Curia Cardinal since Vatican II belongs to this human intimacy. It is a life picture of the most inner modesty, with worldwide impact. This was certainly unusual in this office, suitable for uniting the human side with the church dignitary, who sought beauty in rite and appearance. His legendary red shoes were not part of a carnival, as his successor said, but clarification that the pontiff is based on the blood of martyrs.

Creative Thinking Leads to God

Not theological teaching, but rather an inner urge to release the content and meaning of Christian faith from the fog of uncertainty and externalisation and make it comprehensible in its basic truths, led in 1968 to the book which, translated twenty times, carried Ratzinger’s name into the world: ‹Introduction to Christianity.› In it he compares the man of the present with ‹Hans im Glück› (Hans in Luck.) The latter exchanges his gold nugget for horse, cow, goose, and grindstone, which he finally throws happily into the water, and rejoices in his freedom. This image rings true, and it still does today. Ratzinger’s life’s theme was freedom in the creative act of acting and thinking about God. Because freedom in the creative act of acting and thinking about God was Ratzinger’s life theme. One reads therefore, with astonishment, that Christian faith means that a creative consciousness, from its creative freedom, has released thought into the freedom of its own, independent being.

The model from which creation must be understood is not the craftsman, but […] creative thinking. At the same time, it becomes apparent that freedom is the hallmark of the Christian belief in God in the face of any kind of monism. At the beginning of all being, he does not place any consciousness, but creative freedom, which in turn creates freedom. In this respect, to the highest degree, one could describe the Christian faith as a philosophy of freedom.

Joseph Ratzinger, ‹Einführung in das Christentum› [Introduction to Christianity]›

Such statements brought respect and reverence to the late Pope. They have nothing to do with the ‹Theologian Pope›, nothing to do with cheap vows of irredeemable promises. His doctoral students call this way of speaking ‹teaching like Mozart›. He himself performed Mozart’s music on the piano, and was the first to prosecute child abuse, tighten laws, and dismiss 400 priests during his tenure. During his visit to Germany, the gap between the initial pope-hype and the distance to the prophet in his own country deepened when he called for the de-secularization of German Catholicism, which he held responsible for full coffers and empty churches, and when he delivered a much-noticed speech to the Bundestag about Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome as the roots of spiritual Europe.

Reconciling Faith and Reason

In the eight years of his pontificate, he, who was born in 1927 and spectacularly resigned in 2013, wrote 242 messages to governments and church representatives, wrote four encyclicals, completed 352 liturgies, held 340 audiences, delivered 1,491 speeches, made 52 journeys, and received 18 million people in Rome and Castel Gandolfo. During this time, the Jesus Trilogy was created, translated twenty times, sold millions of copies, and was distributed in 72 countries, not as a papal doctrine but as a testimony of a «lifelong journey to the Lord» of the man Joseph Ratzinger. In his last audience before his resignation, Benedict XVI returns to his concept of freedom, stressing that the person who turns to God «is completely and radically free in thinking and feeling, in the core of his decisions and in the choice of his deeds.»

What will remain: the effort to reconcile faith and reason; the steps towards Judaism; the trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth; the resignation, which was oriented less to the resignation of Pope Celestine V (1294) than to that of Emperor Charles V (1555). It will also remain that the public, especially in Europe, struggled with Benedict XVI in some matters, because he fiercely rejected any form of relativization and compromise with modernity – and certainly also because his quiet and highly educated spirituality provoked rejection. In his testament in 2006 he wrote: «I have seen, and I see how, out of the tangle of hypotheses, the reason of faith has emerged and emerges anew. Jesus Christ is truly the Way, the Truth and the Life – and the Church, in all her shortcomings, is truly His Body.»

Translation Monika Werner
Image Pope Benedict XVI in Berlin, 2011. Source: Wikimedia

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