My first encounter with Pope Benedict XVI. was marked by his absence. I stood, gently rocked by the waves of the Pacific, where he would stand in a few days’ time: on the front deck of the boat that would take him into Sydney Harbour. A number of journalists had been invited ahead of the World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney to take in the location of the events on the water; and to see “what the Holy Father would see”, as one of the organizers from the Archdiocese had put it, as we cruised out under the Harbour Bridge. I balked at the expression. This guy, the pope, was neither holy nor my father, in my view. A proud atheist and criticially-minded journalist and senior manager for SBS, like most of my colleagues I was irritated that my employer, a multilingual and multicultural public broadcaster, would even be the official network covering this religious event. And what is more, not something agreeably religious, like a nice Buddhist festival, but from that most outdated, autocratic, sexist institution of them all: the Catholic Church.
Had anyone told me, as I stood there on board the MV Sydney 2000, that in a few year’s time I would be a practicing Catholic, I would have laughed out. Loudly. Had anyone told me that I would even leave my excellent, rewarding career at SBS to work as a Catholic journalist on the other side of the planet, and along the way be the editor-in-chief of the Catholic newspaper that Pope Benedict has continually read since his tenth birthday (he is a loyal subscriber, to this day), I would have thought the person suggesting this was high on hallucinogens. Had anyone told me that in that role I would be in the arcades above Saint Peter’s Square a good decade later, covering the resignation of this “Holy Father” as a Bavarian brass band rang out across the tens of thousands gathered there, I would have checked myself into a hospital for a check-up.
And yet, this is exactly what happened.
So today is a rather special day for me too, and I would like to honour the anniversary of Benedict’s resignation by offering some points towards a personal account of what his role has meant to me, and how I see his impact not just on my personal life and many people around me, but the history of Christianity, the West, and indeed, humanity, with the humble means available to me: a personal post on this blog.
Let me just come out and tackle what several people will wonder about. Yes, I could have published something like this account in German in the newspaper I am responsible for. Or in an essay in another publication. Especially since I know that Pope Benedict reads the Münchner Kirchenzeitung (or even if he did not that week, he would be told of it quickly). The same can probably not be said for an English-language post on my personal blog which has only a few readers, and many of them come here for the stuff about swimming. Well, there are several reasons why I have decided to go down this route. Firstly, I am aware that my personal take on things may not be relevant reading to many of the people who receive the Münchner Kirchenzeitung every week. Many of them have a long relationship with Joseph Ratzinger, who after all is a son of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, and even its former Archbishop. Several have a strong personal ties to him and his family, too. Secondly, the personal nature (and with that: obvious bathos) of my claims is not suited to the writing done in the professional and neutral framework I try to provide in the MK. Thirdly, it would needlessly complicate my already challenging task of working with many vociferous stakeholders and assertive interest groups to ensure that paper is a high-quality platform for real discussion and participation. Several of these voices do not have one good word to say about Benedict, and I would need to open an actual debate on this, which at this point in time is neither a useful nor a responsible thing to do. So call it self-censorship if you want, I stand by this decision. (The paper will of course mark the anniversary).
Since I am butally short on time, I will make these personal observations in the form of an eclectic list in no particular order that centres around three thoughts:
- Pope Benedict XVI. is arguably the most important intellectual of the Twentieth Century, and his prescient work on the Church and society in particular not only predicted exactly what would emerge, but also how to deal with the challenges our civilization finds itself in at this hour. We need to read Ratzinger! We need to re-read his Regensburg Address on Islam, for starters, as rabid Islamists are torturing and beheading Christians not far from the cradle of civilization and countries like Turkey appears to be spiralling into an Islamic abyss whilst educating, exporting and funding preachers to Europe.
- As a pope, Benedict XVI. was a maligned, persecuted and slandered figure even before he took on the role. What is worse, he was hounded, betrayed and attacked both from outside and within the Church. By resigning in humility to pray, he won his final victory over the Pharisees and the many other enemies of our Church in this age and remains a powerful sign of contradiction that continues to shine and will do so in future – and not just in his actions, but his writing in particular. Contrast what Benedict says and writes to the treatment he received at the hands of his enemies, and you will see what I mean.
- The fruits of Benedict’s legacy is yet invisible. The effect of his work as thinker and as pope are yet to fully blossom – and they will do so when much of what is currently foremost on our minds is forgotten. This is particularly true for how the Catholic Church will “subsist” in the current and coming age, but also seemingly minor things like the future of the Society of Saint Pius X and how their role in the history of salvation pertains to the hermeneutic of continuity that is the path of the universal Church through all the ages.
Feel free to add to them or disagree with me in the comments. There are more points I would like to touch on and contextualize, but do not have the time to. Let me just scribble them down here:
- A particularly odious and stupid expression of persecution, in no small part Germanophobic, was the smearing of the pope as a “Nazi”. How Hollywood celebrities and even liberal journalists got away with this begs further investigation and is a devastating indictment of the levels of so-called “tolerance” claimed by some particularly self-righteous individuals in positions of power.
- Another sign of contradiction: His use of beautiful, historical clothes spoke a language our time (the Zeitgeist) was unwilling to hear, and keen to deride and scoff at. Remember the red shoes? But those with ears to listen actually heard the language these vestments, symbols, elements speak. My favourite example is the story of the young Muslim woman who was invited to do the live commentary of the World Youth Day events on SBS Radio – together with a lapsed but eloquent priest and an atheist, no less. SBS did this to ensure an “impartial” if not critical coverage and not seem too “Catholic”. The move backfired: When the priest described the names and purposes of the liturgical elements of dress, since the Muslim commentator was asking, the compelling beauty and inner logic of the narratives these clothes, items and various other elements add to the words and gestures all but converted the questioner, it seemed – and certainly made for compelling Catholic radio in a way no practicing son or daughter of the Church in good standing could have delivered. There are several important lessons in that anecdote, even if it were apocryphal, which for all I know and remember, it is not.
Anyway, I need to cut this short for the time being.
Once again, this is my personal view at the time of writing. What do you remember of him or take away from his papacy, his writings? Feel free to contribute, to disagree (or agree!) with me in the comments. And if you are the praying or at least the thoughtful type (and we all should be in my view), please consider this maligned and IMHO brilliant, humble man in your thoughts today.