“Soon I will stand before the ultimate judge of my life. Although in looking back on my long life I may have much cause for fear and dread, I have nevertheless a joyful spirit because I firmly trust that the Lord is not only the righteous judge, but, at the same time, the friend and brother who has already suffered my inadequacies himself and therefore, as judge, is at the same time my advocate. Looking at the hour of judgment, the grace of being a Christian thus becomes clear to me. Being a Christian gives me knowledge and, moreover, friendship with the judge of my life and enables me to cross the dark door of death with confidence. In this regard, I am constantly reminded of what John recounts at the beginning of Revelation: he sees the Son of Man in all his greatness and falls to his feet, as dead. But He, laying His right hand upon him, says to him, “Do not be afraid. I am…” (cf. Rev. 1:12-17).”
So wrote Benedict XVI in his last letter, dated February 6, at the conclusion of painful days “of examination of conscience and reflection” over criticism of an abuse affair when he was archbishop of Munich more than 40 years earlier.
Eventually, the time of the encounter with the Lord came. It certainly cannot be said that it was unexpected and that our great elder came to it unprepared. If his predecessor had given us a precious and unforgettable testimony of how to faithfully live a painful, progressive illness until death, Benedict XVI has given us a beautiful testimony of how to live in faith the growing frailty of old age for many years until the end. The fact that he gave up the papacy at an opportune time allowed him – and us with him – to walk this path with great serenity.
He had the gift of completing his path by keeping a lucid mind, approaching with fully conscious experience those “ultimate realities” about which he had had like few others the courage to think and speak, thanks to the faith he had received and lived. Both as a theologian and as Pope he had spoken to us about them in a profound, credible and convincing way. His pages and words on eschatology, his encyclical on hope remain a gift to the Church on which his silent prayer set the seal during the long years of his retreat “on the mountain.”
Of the many things that can be remembered about his pontificate, the one that honestly seemed and continues to seem to me the most extraordinary was that in those years he was able to write and complete his trilogy on Jesus. How could a Pope, with the responsibilities and concerns of the universal Church, which he carried on his shoulders, manage to write a work like that? Certainly, it was the result of a lifetime of reflection and research. But undoubtedly the inner passion, the motivation had to be formidable. His pages came from the pen of a scholar, but at the same time of a believer who had committed his life to seeking an encounter with the face of Jesus and who saw in that, at the same time, the fulfillment of his vocation and his service for others.
In this sense, as much as I well understand why he made it clear that that work was not to be considered “pontifical magisterium,” I continue to think that it is an essential part of his witness of service as Pope, that is, as a believer who recognizes in Jesus the Son of God, and on whose faith we can continue to lean ours as well. In this sense, I cannot consider it coincidental that the time of the decision to resign from the papacy, the summer of 2012, coincides with the time of the conclusion of the trilogy on Jesus. The fulfillment of a mission centered on the faith in Jesus Christ.
There is no doubt that Benedict XVI’s pontificate has been characterized by his magisterium more than by his governance. “I knew well that my strength- if I had one- was that of the presentation of the faith in a way suited to the culture of our time” (…). A faith always in dialogue with reason, a reasonable faith; a reason open to faith. Rightly, Pope Ratzinger was respected by those who live attentive to movements of thought and spirit and try to read events in their deeper and longer-term meaning, without limiting themselves to the surface of events and changes. It is not for nothing that some of his great speeches before audiences not only of the Church, but of representatives of the whole of society, in London, in Berlin… have remained etched in memory. He was not afraid of confrontation with different ideas and positions. He looked with loyalty and foresight at the great questions, at the darkening of God’s presence on the horizon of contemporary humanity, at the questions about the future of the Church, particularly in his country and in Europe. And he tried to face the problems with loyalty, without evading them even if they were dramatic; but faith and the intelligence of faith allowed him always to find a perspective of hope.
Joseph Ratzinger’s intellectual and cultural value are too well known to be reiterated. The one who knew how to understand and value him for the universal Church was John Paul II. For 24 years out of the 26 years of his predecessor’s pontificate, Ratzinger was the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Two different personalities but – allow me to say it – a “formidable pairing.” The boundless pontificate of Pope Wojtyla cannot be adequately thought of, doctrinally speaking, without the presence of Cardinal Ratzinger and the trust placed in him, in his ecclesial theology, in the breadth and balance of his thought. Serving the unity of the Church’s faith in the decades following Vatican II by facing epochal tensions and challenges in dialogue with Judaism, ecumenism, dialogue with other religions, confrontation with Marxism, in the context of secularization and the transformation of the vision of man and sexuality… succeeding in proposing a doctrinal synthesis as broad and harmonious as that of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, welcomed by the great majority of the ecclesial community with unexpected consensus, so as to lead this community to cross the threshold of the third millennium feeling as the bearer of a message of salvation for humanity…
In fact, that long and extraordinary collaboration was the preparation for the pontificate of Benedict XVI, seen by the cardinals as the most suitable continuer and successor of the work of Pope Wojtyla. An overall look at Joseph Ratzinger’s itinerary does not escape – indeed it impresses – the continuity of his thread and, at the same time, the progressive broadening of the horizon of his service. Joseph Ratzinger’s vocation is, from the beginning, a priestly vocation, at the same time to theological studies and to liturgical and pastoral service. He progresses through its various stages, from seminary to early pastoral experience and university teaching; then the horizon has a first major broadening to the experience of the universal Church with the participation at the Council and the relationships with the great theologians of the time; he returns to academic activity of theological study, but always in the midst of ecclesial debate and experience; then he widens again into the pastoral service of the great archdiocese of Munich; he definitively passes to the service of the universal Church with the call to lead the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome; finally a new call leads him to the government of the entire Church community. The horizon became total not only for its thought, but also for priestly and pastoral service. To serve the whole community of the Church, to lead it intelligently on the paths of our time, and to guard the unity and genuineness of its faith. The motto chosen on the occasion of his episcopal ordination, “Cooperators of the Truth” (John 3:8), expresses very well the whole thread of Joseph Ratzinger’s life and vocation, if one understands that for him truth was not at all a set of abstract concepts, but was ultimately embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.
The pontificate of Benedict XVI is and will also commonly be remembered as a pontificate marked by times of crisis and difficulty. This is true, and it would be unfair to gloss over this aspect. But it should be seen and evaluated not superficially. As for internal or external criticism and opposition, he himself recalled with a smile that several other Popes had faced far more dramatic times and situations. Without the need to go back to the persecutions of the early centuries, one can think of Pius IX, or Benedict XV when he condemned the “useless slaughter,” or the contexts in which Popes operated during the world wars. So he did not consider himself a martyr. No Pope can imagine not encountering criticism, difficulties and tensions. This does not detract from the fact that, if necessary, he knew how to react to criticism with vivacity and decisiveness, as happened with the unforgettable Letter written to the Bishops in 2009, after the affair of the remission of excommunication to the Lefebvrians and the “Williamson case”; a passionate letter that expressed, as his secretary commented to me, “Ratzinger at its purest state.”
However, what has been the heaviest cross of his pontificate, the gravity of which he had already begun to grasp during his time at the Doctrine of the Faith and which continues to manifest itself as a test and a challenge to the Church of historic magnitude, is the affair of sexual abuse. This was also a reason for criticism and personal attacks on him until his last years, thus also a reason for deep suffering. Having also been very much involved in these matters during his pontificate, I am firmly convinced that he saw in an increasingly lucid way the seriousness of the problems and had great merits in addressing them with breadth and depth of vision in their different dimensions: listening to the victims, rigor in pursuing justice in the face of the crimes, healing the wounds, establishing appropriate norms and procedures, formation and prevention of evil. It was only the beginning of a long journey, but in the right directions and with much humility. Benedict never worried about an “image” of himself or the Church that did not correspond to the truth. And even in this field he has always moved in the perspective of a man of faith. Beyond pastoral or juridical measures, necessary to confront evil in its manifestations, he felt the terrible and mysterious power of evil and the need to appeal to grace in order not to be crushed by it in despair and to find the path of healing, conversion, penance, purification, which people, the Church and society need.
When I was asked to summarize, with an episode, the story of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, I recalled the Prayer Vigil during World Youth Day in Madrid, in 2011, on the large esplanade of the Cuatro Vientos Airport, attended by about a million young people. It was in the evening, the darkness growing thicker as the Pope began his speech. At one point, a veritable hurricane of rain and wind blew in. The lighting and sound systems stopped working and many of the tents on the edge of the esplanade collapsed. The situation was truly dramatic. The Pope was urged by his staff to move away and take shelter, but he would not. He patiently and courageously remained seated in his place on the open stage, protected by a simple umbrella flapping in the wind. The whole immense assembly followed his example, with confidence and patience. After some time, the storm quieted down, the rain stopped, and a great and wholly unexpected calm took over. The facilities resumed operation. The Pope finished his speech and the wonderful monstrance from Toledo Cathedral was brought to the center of the stage for Eucharistic adoration. The Pope knelt in silence before the Blessed Sacrament and behind him, in the darkness, the immense assembly joined in prayer at length in absolute calm.
In a sense, this may remain the image not only of the pontificate but also of Joseph Ratzinger’s life and the goal of his journey. As he now enters the ultimate silence before the Lord, we too continue to feel ourselves behind him and with him.
By Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, is the President of the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation.