Pope Emeritus Benedict died on New Years Eve 2022. End of an era – beginning of an interregnum.
It had been expected by his doctors and long anticipated by himself. His life has been a witness to the Way of Christian discipleship – the key word, the main theme.That is, the Truth of the Person of Jesus Christ who took flesh to redeem our poor, broken but beautiful world; the Life that Jesus confers on us, through baptism and His Spirit and, above all, His enduring Eucharistic presence.
All of this was infused by the authentic humility Pope Benedict that he lived, taught and the manner in which he engaged with people. His Pontificate is a prophetic sign to a largely silenced and often persecuted Church, called to discipleship.
The erosion of his physical health in recent times, especially his final illness, was in the words of Pope Francis: “…a testimony of love for the church until the end.”
The parable of the talents – our personal use of the gifts and graces conferred on us by God – applies to Pope Benedict in full measure, pressed down and running over. His publications are prodigious in their scale, breath and scholarship. Our age disparages and disrespect reason, intellect and truth.
In the multitude of his writings “Jesus of Nazareth” stands out. It brings the Person of Jesus of the Gospels – the times, the pressures and the triumph of the Cross and the Resurrection – alive. It’s a critique of the dry revisionist perspectives that were displacing the living Christ of the Gospels. It’s one of those books that take you there .
Benedict used his gifts to vindicate truth and reason. Reason, and the right use of our will, set humanity apart from the world of nature and our wider global and cosmic environment. Pope Benedict called out ” the tyranny of relativism” which assail this age of ours, in the nihilism of critical theory and the subversion of Truth, not least in our Universities.
He affirmed normative values – the precious gift of Europe’s Christian patrimony – the doctrinal truths of the faith and the ‘magistrium’, entrusted to the Church and, for a time to him, affirming the apostolic tradition. He did so with integrity, grace and without rancour.
It’s in his writings and in numerous interviews. He did not reciprocated the hostility visited upon him for affirming Truth, Reason and Faith. Professor Fr Vincent Twomey, a former student of Pope Benedict and a leading authority on his life and mission, called it well in his book on Benedict ” The Conscience of our Age”.
Silence in the face of anger and ideology is a true measure of strength. It turned back on those who denigrated his refusal to bow to the zeitgeist of the “progressive” agenda. The importance of his collaboration with his mentor, Pope St John Paul II, cannot be overstated to the future of the Church and human anthropology.
Pope Emeritus Benedict was not tempted by power, office or ‘careerism’. He knew all too well they were ephemeral and a steel trap. He had no ambition to be Pope. That was an invention by a world and a media obsessed by power and status. At the time of his election he was focused on retirement, writing and music.
In the assault of relativism on the Church and the world, Pope Benedict stood firm, as the darkness deepened and the Church was assailed by the wolves and hirelings and rip tides of abuse, which had insinuated their way into the Vatican. He encountered, as Jesus did, rejection, opprobrium and opposition, laced with the lies, of “the world” which exalts ego, pride and negativity.
Those privileged to know the person attest to his sensitivity to the personal crises that burden those with whom he engaged in his office of safeguarding the doctrinal integrity of the Church. It’s in his interviews and his testimonies.. Truth cannot be bartered to be ‘nice’ and to be ‘compassionate’ – too high a price has been paid. When Truth is assaulted, we and our world are brought low. So, Benedict affirmed and safeguarded Truth.
His visit to the UK in 2010 was greeted with misapprehensions in some quarters.They need not have worried. Many were struck by ineffable courtesy and his deep cultural awareness. He had the gravitas of wisdom that enraptured ‘the public’ and engaged the establishment. He won over the UK, not least during his canonisation of one of the the great Englishmen, Anglicans, theologians, St John Henry Newman whom he greatly admired.
The thing is, you cannot feign wisdom, holiness or humility. With no affectation, Pope Benedict’s life journey was towards this heartland. Leadership has been defined as “Humility with fierce resolve”. Humility and Obedience was how Jesus defined his relationship with His Father. They were cornerstones of Pope Benedict life and his mission. He was tenacious in affirming truth. That will endure against the present and future assaults on reason and truth.
His retirement in 2013 was a historical event– a ‘shock’ to sensibilities and to precedence. For Benedict XVI it was a reasoned decision. He prayed about it, and announced it, in Latin, with grace.
It was part of the mosaic of a much longer life, well-lived, spanning nearly a century. He had not wanted to be Pope. Those intimate with the folly of ‘power’, couldn’t begin to fathom that he did not not want “the top job”. Had they reflected at all on Jesus washing the feet of His disciples at the Last Supper – and His message of what it meant. They caricatured it as ambition concealed.
Benedict XVI understood the demands of the papacy would increasingly make on his already frail health and capabilities. Guided by reason and, having prayed and reflected, he announced his retirement. His great mentor Pope St John Paul II endured to the end – an extraordinary witness as those who were present in St Peters Square have testified. Benedict might have emulated this example. Instead, he endured a different kind of witness. It showed great integrity that he had the humility and tenacity to walk a different path.
Then he moved forward to a period of prayer, silence and service, a segue to Heaven and union with Jesus Christ whose incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus, was the Gospel he preached and affirmed.
And the future of the Church he served and led? In an astonishingly prescient vision of the future of the Church, broadcast at Christmas 1969 – subsequently published by Ignatius Press in 2014 – a young Fr Joseph Ratzinger envisaged a smaller, poorer church, one that had suffered greatly. It was, he said, a Church to which humanity will turn, as the consequences, the unbearable loneliness, of its wilful isolation from God become more evident and oppressive.
Pope Emeritus Benedict anticipated the mercy, and friendship, awaited him and every individual. He wrote that the Christian message, “the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is the cure for death, the medicine for immortality given us in Baptism. A new life begins in us, a life that matures in faith and is not extinguished by the death of the old life but only then fully revealed “