Pope Benedict XVI: A personal tribute to the man who resigned two years ago today

The MV Sydney 2000 - you can see the protruding front deck on which I stood (and a little later, Pope Benedict XVI) quite clearly. (CC Image via Wikimdia)
The MV Sydney 2000 – you can see the second, more narrow protruding front deck with yellow flooring on which I stood (and a little later, Pope Benedict XVI) quite clearly. (CC Image via Wikimedia)

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 And what is more, not something agreeably religious, like a nice Buddhist festival, but from that most outdated, autocratic, sexist institution of them all: the Catholic Church.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.

Pope Benedict XVI. (Source: CC Image, Wikimedia)
Pope Benedict XVI. (Source: CC Image, Wikimedia)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Four years in ten minutes: How do you know who you are? And what matters most to you in your life?

Four years is a long time, but also one that is easily taken stock of. Or is it? How do you summarize what happened in four years in, say, ten minutes – aside from the fact that ten minutes of reading will also depend on how fast you personally read and how dense the subject matter is? What if you were to sketch out what is different now to what was before? How have you changed? How has your life changed, and the world and people around you? Do you count the life events? Or the times you moved house? Do you take stock of the people and places you have gotten to know? Account for your spiritual growth or your material wealth? Number the gadgets, the scars or the memories both good and bad? Do you reflect on what has stayed part of your identity, and what has not? Can you glean an insight into what matters in life and why you are here? How? Against what foil, metric or narrative?

Sitting in my favourite spot in the world – a wooden veranda in my garden, looking out onto a low-slung mountain of the Bavarian Alps – I have spent most of today reflecting on these questions. Because four years ago, we upped sticks and moved from down under to Europe. With no job prospects and three little kids in tow. We quit our careers – not knowing if and how we would even make a living, sold all our stuff, and jumped on a plane.

And now? Never have my wife and I lived as long in the same place as we have for the last 48 months. We have settled. Indeed, the family has gone native. Even if we are and always will be Australians, too – we have put down roots in the Bavarian soil. Over the course of the last four years, our fourth child was born. The other children (all born and – thus far – bred Aussies), also grew and flourished, thank God. Two completed primary school and moved on to high schools, one started primary, one started kindergarten. We took our savings and put down a deposit on a house. We lived with less than a third of the income we had in Australia for a long time. We took our time furnishing our place (we still are), but also rather quickly built an extension to our house to make room for the growing family. We inherited some noisy and loyal Appenzeller dogs from an uncle who passed away. We kept cute rabbits for a while, one of which died, – and we adopted an obstreperous little cat, who almost died when she swallowed a metal clasp from a sausage end she greedily stole from the rubbish bin one night.

When we left Australia, my wife, a career scientist and outstanding cancer researcher, quit her job at the University of Sydney. Being able to look after the family more made her into a better person. Now, on top of running this (by some standards) large and (by any standard) very busy family, she is a successful science writer and journalist. Her balding husband (i.e. yours truly) is onto his third job: the first reacquainted me with European, or rather, German journalism and working culture; in particular the local media practices (many of which are on the long list of things to blog about). The second job was, amongst many other things, an anthropological expedition: an 18-month-long adventure that drew me deeply into the inner workings of the Catholic Church; a rich, rewarding and above all incredibly challenging experience from which I brought back many stories, personalities and narratives to write about at some later stage. And the third and current job, which I have held for just about two years now, is in some ways a dream job: editor-in-chief of a small but not unimportant and proudly historic weekly newspaper; one that I hope to continue exploring for a good while yet.

When we arrived, we were confident and hopeful. And, like concentric circles, we were welcomed and given a fair go: Bavarian institutions, regional services, the healthy economic climate of the Munich metropolitan region – and above all the local shire and village. Within a few months, I was able to find a job, and establish a real home for my family and myself. This is not just because I am a native Bavarian with local knowledge, a local name and the requisite lingo, although all of this helps, of course. As I am sitting here in this small village, a dozen or so refugees from the Middle East and Africa are playing noisily on a nearby street in the autumnal sun. They are a sample of the many thousands that have all come to Germany because of its high acceptance rate of asylum seekers; not to mention the many migrants from dozens of nations that are calling this country now home. Many of them I work with on a daily basis. They are better looked after here than in Australia or any other European country, except perhaps Scandinavia. Not to mention other regions. If you apply yourself and are willing to take some risks, Germany, in particular Bavaria, is arguably one of the best places to be on this planet right now. And not just in terms of its economic indicators, natural beauty and strong democratic institutions.

Right – but what about the interior life, and the life of ideas and personal growth? During these four years I must have read a few hundred books (my Goodreads account is a very incomplete but growing record of my literary appetite) and watched many, many films. I completely stopped watching regular TV. I started Wimmerblog.com and published my first short story, “The Scorcher”. I gave several talks and took time to write prose whenever I reasonably could after a day of writing journalism. Travelled to Spain, Croatia, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, the Vatican and the Czech Republic. Took up ocean swimming and swam my first open water race. Spent a week in hospital with a mysterious disease – possibly Chikungunya fever – but recovered quickly and – so far – completely. And during all of this time I met an incredibly diverse number of individuals and families, some of them enriching, inspiring, challenging in the best sense of the word – and many of them I am grateful to now call my friends. Above all, however, I grew in my spiritual life, and through this, as a husband to my adored wife and as a father to my beloved children. I was able to give my roles and vocations in life a go. And it was here that I really found meaning and a purpose. Everything else was – and is, and will be – secondary.

Regrets? I’ve had a few

Of course, there are regrets. Most of these are personal: I regret not making more fully use of the time, talents and abilities given to me. I regret not living up to expectations of myself in many ways, and at another level, regret regretting this, since it means I am sometimes not humble enough to realize and make peace with my own – or others’ – limitations. I was not always the best husband, father, co-worker, friend, boss, writer, journalist, that I could have been. Sometimes, by a long shot. But I am grateful to say that I was allowed to start again every day. And – since I am a practicing Catholic – with a completely clean slate whenever I needed to avail myself of the sacrament of reconciliation, aka confession.

So how have you grown in the last four years? What are your regrets and how do you think we take stock, or rather: how we should?  What would you write down for a ten minute read?

I started writing this as “four years in four minutes”. Then I corrected it to five, and, finally, ten minutes…I had to stop myself from making it more than that. Try it, and you may find the same thing happen to you. Either way, let me know – I’d be curious to find out!