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A Gentle Man

Don't bet against the unexpected pope from Bavaria.

By From the February 2011 issue

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Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs of the Times
By Pope Benedict XVI and Peter Seewaldt
(Ignatius Press, 256 pages, $21.95)

A well-known American Catholic theologian not noted for his fidelity to Church teaching was a commentator for a major television network during the last papal conclave. Just before the conclave closed its doors to begin the process of selecting the successor of St. Peter (and more immediately the successor to Pope John Paul II), he proclaimed confidently that one thing was certain -- the next pope would not be Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I think it fair to assume that the network has not offered him a contract for the next papal election.

The election of Pope Benedict following upon John Paul II’s long and historic papacy dealt the death blow to the resistance movement within the Church’s post-Vatican II efforts to misinterpret the Council as a mere surrender to secular modernity. The most obvious product of this lengthy internal war, at least in the West, was a massive decline in priestly vocations and concurrent rise in defections. No less invidious were changes at the diocesan level in selection and formation of seminarians -- changes partly responsible for precipitating the sexual abuse of children by a small percentage of Catholic priests in the U.S. and Europe. Although such deviant behavior has also been reported with greater frequency among Protestant ministers and indeed among public school teachers in the U.S. (not surprisingly in a sex-soaked culture that aggravates fallen human nature), the betrayal of many innocents by past diocesan cover-ups of abuse allegations has rightly drawn condemnation. The toll for the Catholic Church has been great and just: the bankruptcy of many dioceses, resignations of bishops, and understandable mistrust by the laity of their bishops and priests that will take years to eradicate. Pope Benedict’s gesture of meeting with victims of abuse on his many papal visits along with his constant denunciation of these crimes in his talks in Rome and most particularly a scorching letter to the hierarchy of Ireland, one of the hotbeds of clerical abuse, are already having an effect in convincing the lay faithful that disclosure of crimes and punishment of their perpetrators have replaced cover-up and faith in therapy.

But beyond the sex abuse scandals, Pope Benedict’s firm and far-seeing handling of his uniquely heavy spiritual responsibilities in the past five years validates his surely Spirit-driven election to the papacy. He has calmly and confidently taken up the authentic interpretation of the Second Vatican Council and the New Evangelization that John Paul launched, and has even scored a smashing success at a World Youth Day in his native land. Benedict’s few encyclicals have not been trumpet blasts condemning heretics right and left, as many expected, but rather gentle but strong examinations of the theological virtues and how they play out in our modern world.

However, over time what may most affect the lay faithful is the importance Pope Benedict places on the sacred liturgy. Some refer to Benedict’s liturgical work as the “Reform of the Renewal.” He had already outlined all this in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, which laid out his agenda of making the 1962 (Tridentine) Mass more available and attempting to introduce more silence and reverence into the post-Vatican II Mass. If he succeeds, decades or centuries from now this reinvigoration of the sacred dimension of the liturgy will likely be seen as his most important pontifical accomplishment.

Pope Benedict XVI has now been the Roman pontiff for over five years; at the age of 83 he continues to make headlines with his steadfast presentation and defense of Catholic doctrine and pastoral trips abroad, most notably his recent visit to Great Britain on the occasion of the beatification of his fellow theologian, the now Blessed John Henry Newman. By all accounts, Benedict’s sincerity, simplicity, and kindness, combined with a powerful intellect, both charmed and tamed a population that is largely pagan and atheistic and had threatened possible violence against his person.

Naturally each pope is different, yet no Church historian or Vaticanista could have foreseen such an occurrence. Two popes in succession -- one, arguably the greatest philosopher pope, and the second, the greatest theologian pope -- who both lived and suffered through the cataclysmic events of the mid-20th century; the first of whom played a central role in the demise of Communism, the second of whom is confronting the “dictatorship of relativism” in the depopulating West while tirelessly insisting on the importance of reason in dealing with Islamic fundamentalism.

PETER SEEWALD, THE GERMAN JOURNALIST whose interviews with Benedict produced Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, knows his interviewee well. He is co-author of a biography of Pope Benedict, and interviewed the then Cardinal Ratzinger twice before at book length for Salt of the Earth and God and the World. Seewald, who was then a skeptic but is now a practicing Catholic and well-known religion writer in his native Germany, poses questions that are lengthy and even provocative.

However, to clarify some of the earlier media confusion: No, this book is happily not about the morality of using condoms in certain circumstances. In response to a question from Seewald, the pope glancingly touched on the topic, which set off the predictable brief media frenzy, terminated when it became clear that the visible head of the Catholic Church had not belatedly embraced the sexual revolution.

What then is the book about? The headings of its three parts indicate the subject of Seewald’s questions: “The Sign of the Times,” “The Pontificate,” and “Where Do We Go from Here?”

In the first section Seewald asks the pope what he felt like when he was elected:

A thought of a guillotine occurred to me: Now it falls down and hits you. I had been so sure that this office was not my calling but that God would grant me some peace and quiet after strenuous years. But then, I can only say, explain to my self: God’s will is apparently otherwise and something new and completely different is beginning for me. He will be with me.

When asked in the second part about how the Church differs from a multinational company, Pope Benedict replies:

Well, we are not a production plant, we are not a for profit business. We are Church. That means a community of men standing together in faith. The task is not to manufacture some product or to be a success at selling merchandise. Instead the task is to live the faith in an exemplary way and to proclaim it and at the same time to keep this voluntary association which cuts, across all cultures, nations and times and is not based on external interests, spiritually connected with Christ and God himself.

In the third part, asked about his prayer at Fatima on May 11, 2010, “May the years ahead hasten the fulfillment of the prophecy of the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to the Glory of the Most Holy Trinity,” Pope Benedict replies:

I said the “triumph will draw closer.” This is equivalent in meaning to our praying for the coming of God’s kingdom. The statement was not intended to express any expectation on my part that there is going to be a turnaround and that history will suddenly take on a totally different course. The point rather was that the power of evil is restrained again and again and again and the power of God himself is shown in the Mother’s power and keeps it alive! The Church is always called upon to do what God asked of Abraham, which is to see there are enough righteous men to suppress evil and destruction. I understood my words as a prayer that the energies of the good might regain their vigor. So you could say that the triumphs of God, the triumphs of Mary are quiet, but they are real nevertheless.

Light of the World has a preface by George Weigel, the biographer of John Paul II who probably knows more about the contemporary Catholic scene than any man this side of the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen. The book’s appendix is especially valuable, as it collects several of the most important short statements and interviews of Benedict’s pontificate, along with biographical data, curriculum vitae, and a “Brief Chronicle” of the pontificate that runs right up to his November 2010 trip to Spain.

Whatever your religious convictions or lack thereof, you will be charmed by the sincere, simple, and deep reflections on both the Church and the World by this man of God who also possesses one of its greatest intellects. While John Paul II is indubitably “the Great” and was in a certain sense the mentor of his successor, the greatest goal of John Paul’s pontificate was left unmet -- the union of all Christians. It would be a stretch for Benedict to live to 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Revolution, but given his close relationship with the autocephalous Orthodox churches and the ongoing disintegration of traditional denominational Protestantism, the pontificate of Pope Benedict could achieve giant steps towards the greatest wish of the Founder of the Church: “That all may be one!”

I would not bet against the unexpected pope from Bavaria.

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About the Author
Matthew Kenefick is a Church historian who writes from Washington, D.C. and a Research Fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute.