My first memory of Pope Benedict XVI was a joke someone told me in high school:
Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) was put in charge of Purgatory. Martin Luther comes to him, and Ratzinger gives him 100 years in Purgatory. John Calvin comes up, and Ratzinger gives him 50 years. Then Jesus walks by and Ratzinger gives Him 5 years.
The point of the joke was to say how strict and stringent Ratzinger was a head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. This reputation was so strong that some had nicknamed him “God’ Rottweiler.” It was only years later that I actually began to read the words of the man himself.
And what I found changed my heart.
I am not sure how anyone who as read the words of Pope Benedict XVI could come away with the image of a ruthless man, dedicated to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of love and redemption. His immense faith and deep love for God and his fellow man is evident in everything he wrote.
Joseph Ratzinger was born in Germany and grew up while Hitler was rising to power. His father was a police officer and opponent to the Nazis party. As a result, the family had to move from town to town when the fascist ideology would take hold in their community. As a was compulsory at the time, he was forced into the Hitler Youth program and then drafted into the German military. Years later, people would use this forced service as a way to slander him. While in training, his superior went up the rows of recruits and asked them what they wanted to be when they got older. Most of them said they wanted to be soldiers to help the Fatherland. But young Joseph said, “I want to be a parish priest.” Towards the end of the war, he abandoned his post and was picked up by the allies and was briefly a POW. When he was released he pursued his vocation to become a priest.
Almost despite himself, he rose in the ranks of the Church hierarchy. Whenever he was offered elevation, he was certain his spiritual would tell him that he was not suited for the office. But to his surprise every time he was told by his spiritual director to answer God’s call.
As head of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger understood the importance of being true to the teachings of the Gospel. He was so indispensable that every time he tried to resign, Pope John Paul II refused to accept his resignation. If you have encountered Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings, you would understand.
A number of years ago, I read his Introduction to Christianity. It is a book that is not only theologically enlightening, but it reveals an author with a sensitive heart to modern man. He describes how lost this generation feels in its quest for faith and he expresses endless sympathy for those without it. His encyclopedic knowledge opened up all new insights into our Catholic faith and drew me deeper into communion with it.
When John Paul II died, Ratzinger thought that he would now get to retire and pursue a life of contemplation, prayer, and writing. But at the conclave he received the most votes for pope twice in a row. He asked his fellow cardinals not to vote for him. But eventually a cardinal pulled him aside and asked him (I am paraphrasing) “If God wants you to be pope, are going to say no to God?” So with humility, he accepted the burden of the papacy.
As Pope Benedict XVI, he continued on John Paul II’s mission as a Holy Father to the whole world, making several missionary trips. He wrote beautiful encyclicals like Deus Est Caritas, where he spoke beautifully about the love of God. But my favorite thing he wrote while he was pope was not an official papal document, but a private series of books called Jesus of Nazareth. He wrote in words so plain and firm that he made the reality Christ feel ever more present.
This is the key, I think, to understanding Pope Benedict XVI. Many people of his intellectual prowess lose themselves in their ivory towers. But with Benedict XVI, there was an utter simplicity at the core of everything that he taught. And this simplicity gave power to everything else. You can see this expressed in my favorite passage from Jesus of Nazareth:
“The great question that will be with us throughout this entire book: What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought?
“The answer is very simple: God…. He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and the lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves.”
And it is this supreme focus on God that carries us even through the shadow of death.
In his final letter, Pope Benedict wrote:
“Soon I will stand before the ultimate judge of my life. Although in looking back on my long life I may have much cause for fear and dread, I have nevertheless a joyful spirit because I firmly trust that the Lord is not only the righteous judge, but, at the same time, the friend and brother who has already suffered my inadequacies himself and therefore, as judge, is at the same time my advocate. Looking at the hour of judgment, the grace of being a Christian thus becomes clear to me. Being a Christian gives me knowledge and, moreover, friendship with the judge of my life and enables me to cross the dark door of death with confidence. In this regard, I am constantly reminded of what John recounts at the beginning of Revelation: he sees the Son of Man in all his greatness and falls to his feet, as dead. But He, laying His right hand upon him, says to him, “Do not be afraid. I am…”
Pope Benedict XVI not only showed us how to live, he showed us how to die. We can face death with confidence and even good cheer because we are going to the one who loves us most. His last words were not necessarily a valediction to those he was leaving behind, but a statement of devotion, looking towards the love of his life: “Jesus, I love you.”
I don’t think it is possible to do justice to the man in these few words. And I know that there are good people who took issue with his handling of certain problems or objected to his resignation from the papacy.
But Pope Benedict XVI always tried to point us beyond the noise of contemporary conflicts to take the perspective of eternity. He reminds us always that in the end, God wins. There is no doubt of that. The only question is whether or not we are on the winning side.
This was a man who spent his entire life seeking to be closer to Jesus. And in doing so, he brought us all closer to the Lord as well.
Rest in Peace, Pope Benedict XVI
Copyright 2023, WL Grayson