ESTABLISHED 1888 HERALDCATHOLIC
A good Pope, and a good man
Every pope leaves a distinctive mark on the Church, and in the case of Benedict XVI, the extent and value of his legacy will only be fully apparent in generations still to come. He made a remarkable contribution to Christian thought and Catholic theology, but we should acknowledge him first as a lovable and holy man – a saint, in the sense of a man who is now with God. His kindness and his humility made him not just a good pope, but an exemplary Christian.
to it, based on intimate engagement with its workings, is a cor rective to any glib dismissal of Vatican II by reactionar y Catholic conser vatives.
On the vexed question of the lit urgical changes that followed, and par ticularly the celebration of the Tridentine Rite, he took the sensible view that what was holy once cannot later be called unholy; his inclusive approach was later, to his distress, reversed by his successor.
The hallmark of his life’s work was that faith and reason were reconcilable; indeed, that the one reinforced the other. He himself was extraordinarily widely read and was perhaps the last inheritor in our time of the great German academic t radition. That belief in the compatibility of faith and reason characterised his work as a theologian and later as pope. It is
For all his intellect ual achievements, he was a shy person who did not take naturally to the publicity that goes with the modern papacy. He had the iron integrity that came with the conviction that the deposit of faith was worth defending, but in his manner he was unassuming and gentle. His death revealed the extent of the affection in which he was held by ordinar y Catholics and by Christians outside the Catholic community.
He came f rom a family of ver y modest means; his father was a policeman whose position was problematic because of the threat f rom National Socialism, which he detested. The culture in which Joseph Ratzinger grew up was ver y Catholic, that of small villages where religion was not a matter just of the head but of the hear t and of common, everyday practice.
The hallmark of his life’s work was that faith and reason were reconcilable; indeed, that the one reinforced
He always felt himself to be Bavarian, and in his family and community, religion underpinned ever yday life. As a lit tle boy he would play at priests at a small altar with his brother, Georg, with his sister, Maria, acting as altar ser ver. He never lost that simple piety. But his father’s commitment to the Church did not preclude a critical approach to clergy and hierarchy; it was a valuable example.
the other an essentially optimistic view of man’s nature. In his address to the University of Regensburg during his papal visit to Germany, he dwelt, among other things, upon the impossibility of advancing the cause of religion through violence, which, being unreasonable, is unGodly.
The way in which his critics seized on one quote – f rom a Byzantine emperor, criticising Islam – out of context showed how dif ficult it now is to discuss serious issues in a culture with a shor t at tention span. Many of those who dealt with him as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith paid t r ibute to his attentive and intelligent engagement with them. He continued as scholar even when he had other demanding roles; his three-volume work on Christ, written as pope, was a near-miraculous achievement. Perhaps his most practical work was the new Catechism of the Catholic Church which he brought about under John Paul II; it is a restatement of Catholic beliefs in a clear, accessible format and will be valuable for decades to come.
He grew up in the shadow of Nazism. He was obliged to join Hitler’s militar y – on an anti-aircraft unit. That experience of a regime which was atheistic and hostile to Christianit y – though of course Christians did not suffer in any sense as Jews did – lef t its mark on him. He knew what it was to be at odds with the prevailing political culture.
One of his earliest contributions to the Church was as a peritus, an exper t adviser, at the Second Vatican Council. He was committed to the Council, but he plainly never enter tained the notion that any change in lit urgy or practice could be justified by invoking the “spirit” of the Council. His nuanced approach
His legacy is r ich – his encyclicals as pope in par ticular repay close reading. Moreover, he had a knack for reading the signs of the times; he appreciated the scale of the challenges the Church faces in a culture which has largely given up on God. In an address in Freiburg, he called on the Church to detach itself f rom the world and to remain resistant and uncompromising to a purely secular view of life. It is a challenge we should all consider. Benedict, now as in life, can help the Church remain orientated towards Christ.
FEBRUARY 2023 ● CATHOLIC HERALD 1