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 And what is more, not something agreeably religious, like a nice Buddhist festival, but from that most outdated, autocratic, sexist institution of them all: the Catholic Church.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

Heiligung durch Gender-Debatte?

Im neuen Gotteslob ist ein wunderbarer Abschnitt – es ist Nummer 29 – der erklärt, warum wir auf der Welt sind. Das Ziel unseres Daseins ist, steht dort, ein “Leben in Fülle”. Anders gesagt: Wir sind aufgefordert, die besten Menschen zu sein, die wir nur sein können. Die Pop-Psychologen und Management-Berater nennen das “unser Potential voll ausschöpfen”. Wir Christen kennen es seit 2000 Jahren unter einem viel besseren Begriff: Der Berufung zur Heiligkeit.

Heilig werden: Wie schaffen wir das? Ein gewisser Jesus hat es uns verraten: Ihn zu kennen, ihn zu lieben, und ihm nachzugehen ist unser steiler Weg und Ziel. Völlig wurst ist dabei, ob wir das nun als Priester, Mönch oder Laie tun. Egal ist auch, ob wir dies als Mann oder Frau tun. Das garantiert die christliche Errungenschaft der menschlichen Würde. Aber unser Geschlecht bestimmt den Rahmen der Möglichkeiten, wie wir das tun.


Logisch, sagen die christliche Lehre wie auch die Naturwissenschaft. Stimmt nicht! sagt die Gender-Theorie, und fordert eine Menge Konsequenzen. Kritiker sehen in diesem Gender Mainstreaming eine gefährliche Ideologie. Viele Befürworter sehen Gender dagegen als ein Ringen um Gleichberechtigung. Kein Wunder, dass um dieses Thema ein heftige Debatte entbrannt ist.

Wir haben in der Münchner Kirchenzeitung verschiedene Kommentatoren zu Wort gebeten, die sich zum Teil auch widersprechen. Das war schon einigen Leuten zu viel. Einige haben sich bei mir beschwert. Andere haben sich bedankt. Ich bin überzeugt: Wir brauchen diese Debatte! Und gerade ein christliches Medium muss sie so führen, dass jeder sich seine eigene Meinung bilden kann und diese auch beisteuern – etwa per Leserbrief oder bei Twitter. Und wenn dabei der eine oder andere lernt, kognitive Dissonanzen auszuhalten, also sich mit einer Meinung zu beschäftigen, die er nicht teilen wird, dann ist das ein wichtiger Nebeneffekt. Und vielleicht sogar ein Schritt auf dem richtigen Weg, dem der Nachfolge Jesu. Oder?

(Crosspost der Kolumne “Wimmers Woche” auf den Münchner Kirchennachrichten)

"Gott schuf also den Menschen als sein Abbild; als Abbild Gottes schuf er ihn. Als Mann und Frau schuf er sie." So steht es schon in Genesis 1,27  (CC-Bild: kosmolaut/flickr)
“Gott schuf also den Menschen als sein Abbild; als Abbild Gottes schuf er ihn. Als Mann und Frau schuf er sie.” So steht es schon in Genesis 1,27
(CC-Bild: kosmolaut/flickr)

What the **** is wrong with Jonathan Franzen? (Drive-by Cultural Criticisms, No. 1)

Here’s the thing: Modernity, especially the reality this word describes in Western societies at the moment, deserves all it can get in terms of critical analysis. There is not nearly enough of it to go around, though there is a lot of relativistic rubbish that is passed off as such. Given the sheer lack of useful cultural criticism (in the sense of Kulturkritik), but also our allegedly shortening attention spans (which I will turn to presently), with this essay let me introduce what may well become a regular-ish feature on this blog: A series of “Drive-by Cultural Criticisms”. 

What the **** is wrong with Jonathan Franzen, one of my favourite writers? I will tell you what. The man suffers from an existential disease most of us contend with: Modernity. Published on Friday the 13th here on the Guardian website, Jonathan Franzen’s “What is wrong with the modern world” is what some literary scholars in the German speaking world like to call Kulturkritik (and some scholars will aggressively deny that this is what it is). As with most pieces of this particular genre of cultural criticism, however, it does not withstand the slightest cultural criticism itself. To be sure, there is a lot that is wrong with the modern world. What’s also wrong, however, is  the way he is dealing with this important question. The unhappy essay published here in the Guardian on Friday the 13th of September of 2013 is a case in point.

The Karl Kraus Koolaid will give you Acid Reflux

Poor man Jonathan has spent too much time drinking the Karl Kraus koolaid. Don’t get me wrong: In good measure, this potent stuff is delicious and healthy; full of complex free radicals that punch holes into the hardening arteries of ignorance. But beware the early Twentieth Century bacteria that fester here and turn everything sour! When sipped carefully, the brilliant but utterly self-important Viennese satirist is a deliciously acerbic read; but inhale too much of the stuff, and your own breath will smell stale, if not acidic, and your words will be dripping with bile. Equally self-important people like Franzen, whose own tone of voice can hardly be called fragrant (takes one to know one, eh?), need to be particularly careful.  If I ever succumb to the temptation of reading his latest book, the “The Kraus Project”, I will do so with a supply of cherry-flavoured antacids…in the meantime, I will continue to be entertained by his bilious exasperations provided they are diluted by the mellifluous waters of mass media communication which he neither likes nor understands, and yet uses proficiently with the assured naivete only the utterly self-involved and proudly ignorant are capable of. Just google his name to discover exploits with Oprah Winfrey, BBC 4, and more. Or check the tweets on “Franzo”.

The big argument around the “dehumanising” aspects of technological progress: That is what Franzen ascribes to Kraus. When Franzen complains about Twitter (and other forms of mass media) using forms of mass media, and doing so as an “artist” whose “art” necessarily works with mass media and its materiality, it is little more than embarrassing. I experience a severe case of “fremdschämen” whenever Franzen pops up on TV. God and time willing, I want to revisit the actual flawed argumention in his essay at a later stage in detail. In the meantime, let me just say this (before I head out the door, sorry, in a rush): The solution is obvious – in my view at least. What Herr Franzen needs to do is

  1. get over himself and
  2. read some Chesterton.

Although 2. would certainly help with 1. and might need to come first. How I know? Perhaps because Chesterton also cured me of the same existential disease.

What is wrong with Jonathan Franzen? (CC Image: Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)
What is wrong with Jonathan Franzen? (CC Image: Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)