Epiphany: A tribute to Pope Benedict XVI
On today’s Solemnity of the Epiphany, we celebrate the journey of three wise men who sought to behold the face of the Christchild. Last week, on the Vigil of the Epiphany, January 5th, the Catholic Church laid to rest another great wise man who sought throughout the 95 years of his life to behold the face of Christ. Since that wise man was the Bishop of Rome, Successor of St. Peter, Vicar of Christ (in common parlance, “the pope”) for almost eight years, I would like to reflect today on his life and His search for the face of Christ.
Joseph Ratzinger’s journey to become the 264th successor of St. Peter was an improbable one. He was the son of a policeman in rural Bavaria and while he was notably intelligent from a young age, few opportunities existed for higher education. At the age of five, welcoming the visit of the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich, he was struck by the grandeur of this great churchman, and announced that he wanted to become a cardinal. But while the desire to serve the Lord as a priest burned ardently in his heart from a young age, he was anything but ambitious. At the age of 70, not only a cardinal but the most influential of the cardinals and the obvious successor to the papacy, he begged St. John Paul II to allow him to retire from the most important post in the Vatican to serve as the Vatican librarian. John Paul II wisely refused.
Ratzinger entered seminary at the age of 12, at the dawn of the Second World War. The Catholic Church was one of the Nazis’ principal targets, as it represented the most outspoken opposition to national socialism and its atheistic intellectual program. The seminaries were taken over by Nazi party officials, and Joseph Ratzinger and his brother George were particular targets since their father was an outspoken anti-Nazi. Eventually, he was drafted into the army, was a terrible soldier, and deserted as the Allies drew near in 1945. After several months as a POW, he returned to the seminary.
The conditions there were miserable. Germany was devastated by the war, food and fuel were short, the buildings were unheated, and the general atmosphere was one of intense doubt about the future. It was a time of great confusion, but Ratzinger saw clearly even from the young age of 18 that his country stood on the edge of a precipice. Would Germany, and Europe in general, following the disaster of the Second World War, return to its Christian roots? Or was national socialism and the communism extending its hold in the East a harbinger of even greater anti-Christian trends to come?
[Ratzinger did not have the opportunity to study at a prestigious university. He was a man of Bavaria, the solidly Catholic southern region of Germany that had always remained loyal to the Papacy and to the great traditions of its ancestors. To his last days, he loved dearly the place he never ceased calling home. In his spiritual testament, he wrote, “I would like to thank the Lord for my beautiful home in the Bavarian foothills of the Alps, in which I was able to see the splendour of the Creator Himself shining through time and again.” He even left a post at the most prestigious theological faculty in the world to come back to Bavaria to assist in the founding of a new university at the height of his academic career.]
Despite an attempt to sabotage his doctoral thesis, he became one of the leading lights in Catholic theology in the 20th century, especially as the theological advisor to one of the most influential cardinals guiding the Second Vatican Council. It is no exaggeration to say that Ratzinger was one of the chief architects of Vatican II (which made it all the more absurd when as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and later as Pope he was so often accused of undermining “the Council” – a ridiculous contradiction).
As a young academic, Ratzinger found many professors who had come back to their posts after the War and continued ahead with the same methods as before. He knew that this would not work. The world had been rocked by events of cataclysmic proportions. Nothing was the same in the war’s wake, and powerful forces were being amassed by the enemies of the Gospel. New methods would have to be found.
For that reason, the standard narrative on Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI is that he had a liberal phase in the 1950s and 60s and then decamped to the conservatives when the liberals proved too radical. This is a very misleading, surface-level account with no evidence to back it up other than the ideological identification of the journals in which he published. From the very beginning, as is clear from all of his writings and the testimony of his professors and students, Ratzinger saw that the new methods needed for Catholic theology must be rooted in the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church. He was not a proponent of the Tridentine-era scholastic theology that predominated in the first half of the twentieth century, certainly, but his intellectual program was always that which he later defined in his first major address as Pope: reform in continuity.
After finishing his doctorate, before embarking upon his teaching career, though, he served as a parochial vicar in a small town, entrusted with such glorified tasks as teaching the first communion class and organizing a youth group. He was deeply worried about whether he was up to the task, and incredibly intimidated by the children. Think of the humility of the man destined to become the greatest intellectual of his age, intimated by seven year-olds. But he was a fantastic success, and loved his pastoral work so much that he almost did not want to give it up when his first academic appointment came through.
After 18 years of academic work, Ratzinger was appointed the Archbishop of Munich, his home, and one of the most prestigious sees in Germany. He chose as his episcopal motto, cooperatores veritatis – cooperators with the truth. Ratzinger believed firmly in a truth that was outside of himself, a truth that was not determined by feelings, but that ought to be pursued in a life of joyful enquiry. Encountering and knowing that truth leads the Christian, he thought, to committing one’s life as a cooperator with that truth – a servant of the truth revealed by Christ.
After only four years in Munich, John Paul II, the new Polish pope, called Ratzinger to serve as the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger was to be JPII’s chief lieutenant in the most important task entrusted by God to the saintly pope: sorting out the confusion that was reigning in the post-Vatican II Church about whether the Church’s perennial teachings were still valid. Ratzinger patiently labored at John Paul II’s side, clarifying doubt and ambiguity, working to re-establish Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxy upon the Church’s perennial teachings in a way that spoke even better to the modern world.
It was there that Ratzinger developed the undeserved reputation as “God’s Rottweiler,” a mean-hearted pugnacious villain who enjoyed raining on everyone else’s parade. Anyone who served with Ratzinger knew that to be completely false. The truth is in his record. Ratzinger patiently dialogued with theological opponents, exercised great restraint in issuing condemnations, and as Pope never sacked an ideological adversary. Never once did he use belittling or demeaning language for those who criticized his decisions. If anything, especially as Pope, Benedict was far too generous to the opposition – a consummate gentleman.
In a programmatic speech at the beginning of his pontificate, Benedict addressed the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council in the life of the Church, distinguishing between a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” and a “hermeneutic of reform,” which later came to be known as a “hermeneutic of continuity. “Hermeneutic” is a way of interpreting. The reading of discontinuity, Benedict taught, arose from those who taught after the Council that the affirmations of traditional Catholic teaching contained in the Council’s documents were necessary, temporary compromises, and that the real “spirit” of the Council is found in “the impulses towards the new” in the texts. This is what lead to theologians and parish priests around the world erroneously teaching the faithful that Vatican II taught or required many things that the Council never even envisioned as possible, let alone required.
The restoration of an approach of reform in continuity, repairing the damage done by decades of rupture in the Church, was the essential project of the papacy of Benedict XVI, in line with the great reforms of his predecessor, St. John Paul II, which he had an instrumental role in carrying out. Nowhere was this more evident or important than in his approach to the celebration of the sacred liturgy. In restoring to every priest of the Latin Rite the ability to celebrate publicly, of his own volition, the ancient and venerable liturgy of the Roman Church (which he renamed “the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite”), Benedict wrote that, “In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”
When Benedict wrote those words, I was a college junior who had recently fallen in love with that beautiful liturgy that my Irish, French, German, and even (many centuries before) Norwegian ancestors had held as sacred. His generous and trusting spirit diffused bitter debates and gave me the confidence to enter the diocesan seminary. There is no question at all that if it weren’t for Benedict XVI, and if it weren’t for the most important work of his pontificate, restoring a spirit of continuity to the Roman Rite, I would not have become a priest in this diocese and I would not stand before you today.
If we were to take just one lesson from the life and apostolic ministry of Benedict XVI, it would be this: The historical teaching, practice, and worship of the Church are not relics to be preserved in a museum, but ever-present, perennial realities that must be upheld and lived by every Catholic. We cannot believe in unbroken continuity with the Church’s tradition without also worshiping in unbroken continuity with the Church’s tradition. In a world that wants us to turn our backs on the past, the Catholic faith invites us to live in continuity with the great treasury passed on to us by our ancestors.
I remember clearly the day that Benedict announced his intention to abdicate the papal office, and the emptiness I felt in my heart as I stood in St. Peter’s square, watching the helicopter take off that took him away to Castel Gandalfo. But I also remember the central message of his last papal audience – Christ is the one who is truly guiding the Church.
For 95 years, Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI sought the face of Christ. Like the magi, it that search lead him often to unexpected places. He found it in the beauty of the German alps; in the eager Bavarian children; in the students who crowded his lecture halls, captivated by this new approach that still maintained critical links with the past; in the millions who thronged to see him during his many apostolic journeys; in the Sacred Scriptures, the study of which he re-founded on Catholic principles; in the sciences, which he understood as complementary to faith; in a deep interior life of prayer; and most importantly, in the Most Holy Eucharist, whose celebration he encouraged with the greatest reverence and dignity.
Brothers and sisters, may the example of this great man also inspire us constantly to seek the face of Christ.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, A.D. MMXXII
Image: Benedict XVI celebrating the Solemnity of the Epiphany, 2010