The world woke up to the news that on Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. the Throne of Peter will be vacant. The response was shock, and amazement. Indeed, the Pope is close to his 86th birthday, but his mind is still so brilliant that inevitably people ask themselves: why should he not only resign, but also renounce the title of Peter’s successor? His state of health is so much better than the one of John Paul II the last three years of his life. The rumor ran at the time that several bishops and cardinals (mostly Germans) urged him, to step down. He decided to remain in control until the very end. Did Benedict XVI consider this to be a mistake that he did not want to duplicate? The fact remains; very soon he will once again be Cardinal Ratzinger. We must trust that each one faithfully the particular call addressed to him.
For those of us who have met him personally, the decision might not be as surprising as it inevitably was to the man on the street.
Four times, I have been privileged to have an audience with this great Prince of the Church. Twice in the eighties when I was in Rome for a longer period of time; once in the mid nineties, and finally, in a blessed private audience on March 26, 2007. When I requested these audiences, I had a particular purpose. In the wake of Vatican II, the Church went through a period of such turmoil and confusion that talking to a top notch member of the Curia was a balm. I need not go into details: many nuns (whose glory for centuries had been to be the great educators of Catholic youth – both boys and girls) left their convents in droves. Clown masses were celebrated and the “silence” of many bishops was deafening.
One started hearing heretical sermons on Sundays. The Chaplain at Manhattanville College of Sacred Heart, prohibited the celebration of the Tridentine Mass on the ground that “he objected to the theology of that Mass” – a Mass that had been heard by the saints for centuries. Another priest referred to God “as the nice guy upstairs” – something which edges on blasphemy. I heard one referring to Christ being found in the Temple as “a nasty brat.” Some bishops declared that those who attended a Tridentine Mass on Sunday did not fulfill their Sunday obligation. The Angels must have cried.
I made a point of mentioning some of these to His Eminence. His facial expression could easily be read: immense grief, but it also convinced me that he was fully acquainted with what was going on. The smoke of Satan had penetrated into the Church. He said very little, but at the end of the audience, he uttered a few words reminding me that “the gates of Hell shall never prevail.” Indeed, grave as the situation was, God will always have the last word. I left full of gratitude: he suffered with us, but he also trusted in God’s providence and help.
In each of these privileged moments, I told him how many devout Catholics were grieved and troubled by the massive attacks made by many “progressives” on the Traditional Mass: the Mass which not long ago was heard by a St. Therese of Lisieux. One thing was to challenge the validity of the Novus Ordo - something which unfortunately had taken place – quite another was to deplore that a sacred tradition going back to the very beginning of the Church, was being now treated as unacceptable to “modern man.”
I humbly urged him to do whatever was in his power to save this treasure of spirituality. Once again, I noticed that he was a man of few words; but I knew that he listened, and I was convinced that he took my repeated plea very seriously.
The last time, I had the privilege of seeing him was the climax of our various meetings; together with the Founder of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy project, John Henry Crosby, we obtained a private audience with the now Pope Benedict XVI on March 26, 2007. My dear friend Patricia Lynch was also present when we received His Holiness’ blessing. Apart from requesting His support in fighting, “by the publication of the works of Dietrich von Hildebrand, I once again requested his support for the Tridentine Mass. With a sweet and radiant smile, he said to me, “Very soon, indeed very soon.” Some 100 days later, to my joy and immense gratitude, he granted an indult to all priests wishing to say Mass following the traditional liturgy.
These various encounters left me with very strong impressions about the personality of this remarkable man. One thing is certain: he is definitely not the sort of Prelate who enjoys the limelight. People are born with very different temperaments. Some are charismatic by nature; have no difficulty to face large crowds; as a matter of fact, once they step on the stage, their very presence communicates a joy and a dynamism which guarantees their popularity. John Paul II (who when a young man had been on the stage) possessed this remarkable talent. His very presence arouses enthusiasm.
One thing is certain: Benedict XVI was not a politician. I am personally convinced that he did not want to be elected, and that like Pius X he accepted this glorious burden under the Cross.
He could have turned it down. Benedict XVI is shy: For him these endless meetings and encounters with “famous” personalities, heads of states, etc. were clearly nothing like penance. But it is my personal conviction that he knew he could transmit a message that completed the one of his predecessor.
More than the latter, he had an extraordinary sense for the sacred value of tradition – the golden cord linking us to the past, as Plato put it. He felt keenly that “modern man,” inebriated by his mind-boggling technological discoveries, was losing sight of a precious heritage that is never old because rooted in eternity. His superb artistic background – particularly in music – (a domain in which he certainly has not only a remarkable knowledge, but also a talent as a pianist) – made him aware that “modern culture” was in fact an anti-culture, and that a society in which the youth is fed on Rock and Roll was being given a subtle poison. In the Republic, now close to 25 centuries ago, Plato mentioned that “decadence begins in music. This is certainly what took place immediately after the end of World War II. Truth when cut off from Beauty tends to become abstract; it must be “incarnated.” From its very beginning Christian art, which has blossomed so magnificently in Europe, has taught the faith to millions of little children. Much of modern youth is fed on ugliness; and the Devil is its incarnation.
The vicious attacks on the sacred Tridentine Mass, the horrible architecture of some “modern” churches, sometimes copying a gym, the deafening noise (called music), the lack of reverence in religious ceremonies, were things which Benedict XVI clearly perceived were preventing young people from finding their way to their Mother the Church and perceiving the loving tenderness of Her message. He whose background in the beautiful baroque Catholic culture of Bavaria, had fed him on sacred beauty since his very baptism heard a call: make them aware of the unity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty; all incarnated in the Catholic Church through Christ.
It is also my personal conviction that JPII was conscious that his close collaborator possessed insights of crucial importance that complemented his own: they were a team, and this team had to be kept alive. This explains to my mind, why every time Cardinal Ratzinger offered his resignation as head of the Congregation for the Faith, the Pope wisely turned a deaf ear to his request. That the Cardinal repeated his request proves, on the other hand, how eager he was to leave Rome and go back to his beloved Bavaria. Let us thank JPII for perceiving that his close collaborator’s sufferings were to bring rich fruits for the Church. Their collaboration was crucial. Ratzinger’s exceptional intellectual talents were – for a while – put “in parenthesis.”
They were not lost; they were blossoming in secret. I am convinced that now that as soon as Benedict XVI will again use the name Cardinal Ratzinger, he will share with us insights that only suffering can “water.” No doubt his name will go down in history as one of the very many great minds that God with which God has blessed his Church from the very beginning.
From the moment the future Pope left his beloved Regensburg until Feb. 28, 2013, he accepted a mission which was not of his own choosing. Let me repeat emphatically: He did not like the limelight. He was never tempted by ambition. He did it in obedience, but an act of obedience which was to him, a subtle form of crucifixion.
When one studies the history of the Church, one thing is striking: the amazing variety of personalities and also the high percentage of Popes who were canonized. Something remarkable when one thinks that to be in a position of authority exposes people to all sorts of temptations. To be pope places one on a pinnacle of glory, and a very deep prayer life and much divine grace are both needed not to be flattered by this humanly “glorious” position. The greatest Popes never pursued this honor; they accepted it, but never played the political game on order to step into the shoes of Peter. There were many good Popes, faithfully fulfilling their function as Pastors of the Universal Church. Finally there was a very small percentage of unworthy popes and even bad popes, who ruthlessly tried to “grab” the Tiara to satisfy their pride. Some were great sinners: let us remember that Judas – one of the twelve – betrayed Christ.
But his treason did not prevent the birth of the Holy Catholic Church.
But one thing is certain: in spite of treason and sinfulness, the Bark of Peter survived the most terrible storms and always will.
When elected almost eight years ago, Benedict accepted the “crown of thorns” in obedience, convinced that he had a mission to perform. I suspect that even then he had firmly decided to step down as soon as what he could contribute to the Church, was accomplished: to strengthen the holy cord of tradition, to give us back the treasure of the Tridentine Mass and to further true ecumenism by opening the door of Holy Church to Anglicans distressed by what was happening in their community.
The Pope’s schedule would exhaust a much younger “politician.” One thing is clear: this momentous decision was not the fruit of a sudden impulse, but on the contrary one of long hours of prayer and suffering. Just as he accepted the Papacy in 2005, he now gained the conviction that “God was telling him, ‘well done, faithful servant.’”
While grieving deeply that he is stepping down, the call of the hour is to thank him, and to promise that all his sheep will keep praying for someone who has been a blessing for the Church.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.