Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, has passed away. I have an article coming out in Inside the Vatican Magazine in January which comments on his life as a theologian and Churchman, so I won’t comment on his legacy here. Now is not the time. But I wanted to say a few remarks on his passing, while it is still fresh in everyone’s memory (or at least, their timelines).
Some often assert that in the Middle Ages, the average Catholic paid little attention to the doings of popes, and was more invested in their local parish than the doings in far away Rome. This is doubtless an exaggeration; the papacy has been too central to the Catholic Church for too long for me to believe this is entirely true, and in any case, misses the great symbolic power of the papacy. It embodies both the supernatural authority of Christ as conferred on Peter and his Apostles, but also the elemental power of a monarchical system, where one man stands in for the whole people. That is the magic of monarchy: one can identify with a single person much more easily than with a gaggle of squabbling legislators.
Despite this, it is worth pointing out that Benedict’s reign as pope is probably unprecedented in this respect. Though John Paul II lived through it, Benedict XVI is the first pope whose tenure can be said to have taken place in the age of the Internet. The day Joseph Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, he also became a meme–“the Panzer Pope,” “God’s Rottweiler,” and other absurdities. It is probably more a matter of degree than kind, but in this age, a public person becomes a symbol for causes and trends much more quickly than ever, and no doubt his legacy will fought over on the basis of those he seemed to embody, real or imagined.
But at this hour, we should remember the man more than the office he held, the immortal soul that now has gone to its last rest, as we all must. I will pray for the salvation of his soul today. I will also remember the man who seemed to me a living link with an earlier age, one from which we appear to be receding from rapidly. His personal gentleness were not widely known, but I admit I admired the scholar in him more than anything else. His was a supple mind, capable of maintaining fine distinctions while not losing sight of the big picture. For all the plaudits granted to his later work–“The Spirit of the Liturgy,” his “Jesus of Nazareth” series–for me his best work was his habilitationsshcrift on St. Bonaventure, which he wrote in the 1960s. You could see in that work the mind of someone who was part of a great movement for change in theological world already beginning to have second thoughts about where it was heading.
Two thoughts of the man stand out to me. One comes, if memory serves, from Gunter Grass, a German novelist who spent time with Ratzinger in a prisoner of war camp at the end of WWII. According to him, Ratzinger dreamed in Latin, and when Grass asserted that “there were many truths,” Ratzinger responded: “there is only one.” The second was from his visit to Great Britain, where he seemed to charm the mostly secular Brits with his old world manner. I recall seeing a photo of him and the late Queen Elizabeth II, walking together arm in arm, cane in hand. They seemed like two beings from another world, one with more grace, charm, and charity than the one we presently inhabit. Joseph Ratzinger will be the last pope whose vocation to the priesthood and formation preceded the Second Vatican II, and so we now enter new world, whose contours are still emerging. May God welcome him into His eternal banquet, and may He watch over his Holy Bride in the years ahead.
Requiem aeternam, dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen.