My dear friends,
The Roman Catholic Church has a new Pope and the world is left scratching its head wondering what to make of him. Joseph Ratzinger is now His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, and has quite a reputation. John Allen’s influential biography demonises him as dictatorial, power-hungry and humourless. As always, this appears something of a caricature.
Like his predecessor John Paul II, his early faith was defined against the background of an oppressive totalitarianism. In Karol Wojtilla’s case that was communism, for Ratzinger it has been Nazism. It could be argued that this has shaped both Popes into conviction-led thinkers and away from the processes of accommodation to a secular world. Nevertheless, in his early days as an academic he was still considered by instinct to be something of a progressive.
As a career theologian, he has held a number of professorial chairs at German universities. But life was to change radically at the age of 50 with his appointment as Archbishop of Munich & Freising, a post he had to be persuaded to accept by his spiritual director. The powers-that-be had clearly identified a man of great gifts. Within 30 days he was a Cardinal, and within three years had been invited to Rome. Ratzinger, however, was reluctant to leave his diocesan responsibilities and held out for a further 18 months before John Paul II stepped in and he was persuaded to become prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was in this role that he became the Church’s guardian of orthodoxy and where he developed his uncompromising reputation. He is probably most fairly to be understood, however, in the light of comments he made when first consecrated a bishop: ‘In today’s world the theme of truth has all but disappeared because truth appears too great for Man, and yet everything falls apart if there is no truth.’ At 78 he is obviously not a young man and in recent years had even sought retirement. He offered his resignation three times, but each time it was rejected.
Whilst he lacks the obvious charisma and public persona of his predecessor, he is certainly not without personality. The Catholic commentator Frances Gumley Mason has described how his softly spoken asides once reduced the young priest holding the microphone for a very formal Vatican occasion to a fit of giggles. Proceedings had to pause whilst officials around him regained their composure and an appropriate seriousness of demeanour was restored.
So what can we expect of Benedict XVI? Well, like the Apostle Peter his predecessor, he can be expected to fall well short of perfection; for the living stones of the Church are constructed from the material of frail humanity. But whilst ever he builds on Christ the cornerstone, pioneer and perfecter of faith, he will be a great asset to the Church he serves.
I hope he finds inspiration in the example of John XXIII. In 1959
he was similarly elected as an elderly pontiff with the expectation that he
would maintain the status quo. In fact, it released upon the church one of the
greatest reformers of the modern papacy. But it was a burdensome office and he
would often stay up late into the night worrying and working. It is reputed that
on such occasions he would turn to God in prayer saying ‘It’s up to you now, I’m
only the Pope, and I’m going to bed.’ I hope Benedict XVI will share such
wisdom, and I commend him to your prayers.
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