Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
May 5, 2008
After 3 years, Benedict is being understood
In the London Daily Telegraph the headline over the story of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's election as the successor to Peter on April 19, 2005 stated bluntly, "God's Rottweiler is the new pope." For three years, the Rottweiler image hung on in the Western media.
Confronted with the reality of the man on his visit to the United States last month, the image shifted. Described as "stern" and a "hardliner" at the start of the visit, Pope Benedict was described at the end with words such as "humble," "open" and "honest." Those are still secular words used to describe the most unsecular of men. But people are at last getting a sense of this pope.
Benedict is less inclined to the hardline magisterial proclamation than he is to setting the cat among the pigeons in order to create a teachable moment. We have seen this several times, both before and after he was elected pope.
He has a deep love of the liturgy and his own preferences are clearly classical and traditional. Yet confronted with a more contemporary orientation during his U.S. visit, he was willing to go with the flow.
What cannot be compromised for this pope (or any pope) is fidelity to Jesus, fidelity to truth. The fundamental Christian orientation for Benedict is to recognize one's nothingness before the great author of all being. The virtue propelled into action by this orientation is humility.
Joseph Ratzinger was formed by a childhood and youth under German Nazism. In his book Jesus of Nazareth released a year ago, he describes the Christian faithful as "the small band of people who remain true in a world full of cruelty and cynicism or else with fearful conformity." It is hard not to see in these words the soul of the man who recoiled from Nazi barbarism.
Young Ratzinger's response to the Nazis was not one of protest but of counter-witness. He became a priest to "remain true" in a social situation where so many caved in with "fearful conformity."
He remained true not so much to himself as to Jesus. The individual, Ratzinger tirelessly repeated, is not the measure of truth. That measure lies outside the individual in God. The proper response is humble obedience.
Obedience has not been a popular concept these last 40 years. But Ratzinger has been forthright in challenging situations where obedience is lacking. When we place ourselves in judgment over God, as many are prone to do in our era, we deny God. We deny his power; we deny his existence.
His challenge to liberation theology in the 1980s was a corollary of this fundamental insight. Any form of "liberation" which expects the kingdom of God to take on a political form will make faith the servant of worldly power. Making oneself the judge of God is the opposite of humility. It is arrogance.
Ratzinger's understanding of faith is succinctly outlined in his unpacking of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Jesus of Nazareth: "The Pharisee does not really look at God at all, but only at himself; he does not really need God, because he does everything right by himself. . . .
"The tax collector, by contrast, sees himself in the light of God. . . . He knows that he needs God and that he lives by God's goodness" (p. 62).
Ratzinger's holiness - his humble following of God - was not so evident to the public when he was a mere cardinal. It was misinterpreted as hard line rearguard action. Once he became pope, it became apparent there is nothing hard about this man.
It should by now be clear to all that we have a saint in our midst. Not a saint whose holiness is evident by his ministry as was that of Mother Teresa. Not a saint whose holiness was shown in his larger-than-life greatness as with Pope John Paul II. But a saint nonetheless. A saint of smallness and gentleness and humility.
- Glen Argan
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