PHILADELPHIA — Upon his election Benedict XVI was already an old man with a global presence spanning decades. As a result there are countless individuals who have had personal contact with him in myriad surroundings before his becoming pope. Thousands will have their own little anecdote, their own poignant vignette. However, were they all told I believe that they would all reveal a man of the same qualities: gentleness, thoughtfulness, generosity, openness, an inveterate and consummate intellectual who loves looking at perennial problems from ever-fresh perspectives. At 78, by all accounts, those endearing traits are still amply evident. Indeed, the ensemble of such enduring and defining traits in anyone are what we call a person’s “character.”
When the publisher of The American Spectator asked if I would write a brief reflection on Benedict XVI, whom I have been privileged to know, I thought of a personal incident which involved all three of us. It is hardly of any historic significance. It is merely one of those countless tales which others could tell which reveal the character of the man which few seem to know because of the misrepresentations of him in the general media.
The Regnery publishing house has had a long and distinguished history. Henry Regnery was a man of great cultivation and profound intellectual curiosity and depth. Back in the fifties Regnery was publishing European authors who were part of a remarkable Catholic intellectual revival but who were thoroughly unknown to the American reading public, whether they were Catholic or not. This gentle, refined Quaker of firm conviction was open to all the breadth and richness of Western thought which tapped into and carried forward “the permanent things” without which no civilization can stand.
One of the authors he published was a German theologian and spiritual writer with the unlikely name, for a German, of Romano Guardini. This was a man who had a profound influence on the German Catholic youth movement, on liturgical reform, and a revitalized Catholic academic life. As stated, Henry Regnery was not afraid to publish what might be seen as remarkably esoteric to an American audience, one of which being Guardini’s commentary on the Duino Elegies of Rainier Maria Rilke!
One of Guardini’s more accessible and popular works was a spiritual reflection on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, entitled simply, The Lord. Henry Regnery’s son, Al, had done a remarkable job revitalizing his father’s publishing house after finishing a distinguished career of public service in Wisconsin and in Washington, D.C. under Ronald Reagan. Al told me that The Lord had been one of the consistently best-selling books in the history of the company. They wanted to republish the book, and Al asked if I would be willing to ask Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to write a foreword.
I thought it a rather bold request to make of a man who was the former Archbishop of Munich and who was now serving as the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican secretariat which oversees fidelity to truth in theology and morals throughout the entire Catholic world. It was a time of widespread dissension and of radical movements in the Church which challenged orthodoxy in both doctrine and practice. Nonetheless, one of my guiding principles in life has always been: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
The next time I was in Rome I was granted an audience with Cardinal Ratzinger. In the course of our conversation I told him of the request from my friend to write a foreword to Guardini’s The Lord. Much to my surprise, he said he would be pleased to do so. Not to my surprise, I never received anything.
ABOUT EIGHT MONTHS LATER I found myself in Rome again and was once more granted an audience. I read a book I had with me as I waited for the meeting with the Cardinal, being moved from one richly appointed ante-chamber to the next in the 16th century palazzo housing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As I was finally ushered into the Cardinal’s presence, he put his hands in the air and greeted me with: “Ach, Herr Professor Haas, ich hab’ solch’ ein schlechtes Gewissen!” “Oh, Professor Haas, I have such a guilty conscience.”
“You, Your Eminence?,” I said incredulously. “You have a bad conscience?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I had promised you to write a foreword to Guardini’s The Lord, and I did not do it.”
I responded that I was astonished that he had offered to do it in the first place. I knew how busy he was; the host of issues he had to grapple with were unimaginable.
“When are you leaving Rome?” he asked me in direct German fashion. When I told him later that evening, he responded, “Ach, that’s too bad. If it were tomorrow morning I would have had the piece to you before you left.”
As it was, the Cardinal’s foreword to The Lord arrived shortly after my return to the States. I translated it from the German, and it was incorporated into the new edition of the book.
This exchange is surely quite insignificant in the great scheme of things. But one thing it does is to point to the humility and the magnanimous and generous spirit of this man who is now Pope. There was no need for him to perform this deed of kindness. I was hardly a major benefactor who could help him advance his projects. I was a simple academician with a request from a friend he did not even know. But his generosity and his love of his mentor Romano Guardini and his love of the intellectual life led him to respond with the endearing and kindly spontaneity of a man who was truly free in Christ.
The election of Benedict XVI has raised the stakes in the culture wars significantly. His positions on radical feminism, relativism, liturgical innovation, rampant secularism are well known. Rather than cowering before the “gay” movement he referred on Good Friday of the “filth” that had made its way even into the priesthood and has not only opposed same sex “marriage” but has insisted such individuals should not serve as teachers or youth leaders. It is impossible to know how the struggle will play itself out during his pontificate, but it is clear that he will wage the battle with Christ-like firmness imbued with kindness and gentleness. Those characteristics may disarm his opponents more than any fire-breathing condemnations. They are the weapons of Christ Himself.