Dr Andrew O’Connell is Communications Director for the Presentation Brothers in Ireland, where a key part of his work is the promotion of vocations.
It’s rare to find oneself speaking out loud in an empty room. But that’s what I did and those were my words on that April evening in 2005 when Cardinal Estévez announced the name of the new Pope. “Ratzinger,” he rasped.
My disappointment had nothing to do with the theology of the newly elected Pope. Instead I knew that the warm glow of favourable media coverage since the death of John Paul would give way to a more predictable and tedious narrative of criticism based largely on caricature.
Caricature and controversies certainly provided much of the mood music for this pontificate but it would be a great pity if some of the touching and revealing human moments were forgotten. Moments such as when Pope Benedict broke his wrist during his summer vacation in 2009. He presented at a local hospital where he was told his injury would require an X-ray and an operation. Benedict asked the doctors to respect the order of the queue and simply joined the line of patients awaiting treatment.
A helpful key to understanding this man lies in a story from his youth, recounted in his memoir, Milestones. The 18-year-old Joseph Ratzinger arrives home to Traunstein having been released from an American Prisoner of War camp. His arrest weeks before had “cut my good mother’s heart to the quick”. He was anxious to be reunited with her. It was the evening of the Feast of the Sacred Heart and she was in the local church. As he walked past he could hear the praying and singing. He walked home though and waited for her there instead. “I did not want to create a disturbance,” he wrote.
He did not want to create “a disturbance” as Pope either. That is why he tried to tone down the celebrity dimension of the papacy lest it become a liturgical distraction. He was worried too perhaps that it was feeding the postmodern world’s unhealthy appetite for the cult of the celebrity.
Benedict wasn’t a pop star – he was a professor. And he used his papacy to teach. His Christmas Eve and Easter Vigil homilies in particular became moments of catechesis on the fundamental mysteries of the faith.
As his pontificate unfolded I started to read more of what he had written. In addition to his encyclicals and homilies I tried to catch up on his works from earlier years. It was like discovering an Aladdin’s cave of theological treasures.
As a guest lecturer at a teacher training college I placed Ratzinger’s Salt of the Earth on the reading list for the students. It raised more than a few eyebrows. Later when I would meet the students the reaction was always the same; “It wasn’t what we expected. His thinking is so clear. His words are so beautiful.”
Pope Benedict’s primary aim was to invite people to foster an intimate relationship with Christ. It would be in the liturgy, celebrated with reverence, that Christ would “become our contemporary and come in to our lives”. He wanted to rescue the Lord of faith from the excesses of historical-critical biblical scholarship and place a fresh focus on the spirit and nature of the liturgy.
A second thrust was to open the debate between faith and reason. His addresses to the Bundestag, at Westminster Hall and at the College of Bernardins in Paris will stand as the three pillars of this effort. He readily admitted that religion can give rise to fundamentalism and so needs the influence of reason. But reason, without the contribution of faith, can be dangerous too. Interestingly, as we contemplate the possibility of a Pope from the developing world, he also cautioned against the hubris of Eurocentrism in this debate.
A Pope’s worst enemy is the man who defends everything he does. And this was not a pontificate without flaws. It would be wishful thinking too to imagine that it has had much of an impact among the wider public.
For those who were listening though, Pope Benedict provided gentle encouragement over the last eight years by reminding us that a relationship with Christ is possible, and essential.
And, as this pontificate reaches its conclusion, I can say that I think I know God better because of Joseph Ratzinger.