By the end of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, the popular view toward him as a cold, doctrinal authoritarian persisted and he remained unfavorable to many, even as a steady undercurrent of devotion quietly developed. At this time, two monstrous crises were unfolding. Within the Church festered the earthshaking sexual-abuse crisis. Outside the Church, the continuing dissolution of ethical standards that characterized the rise of rampant secularism. To Benedict, the suspension of objective truth — the abandonment of divine love — was the root of both crises. Nevertheless, Benedict alone seemed accused of being the root of the abuse problem. But still he forged on, becoming the first pope to meet, repeatedly, with victims of clergy sexual abuse.
With Benedict’s character under fire — accusations that he was ill equipped to lead, that his life’s trajectory did little for the concerns of the day — it seemed that the media construction of him would prove too well fortified to debunk. But, on the contrary, his life had prepared him precisely for the age of the millennium.
He had survived under Nazi rule. He was a firsthand observer of and contributor to the Second Vatican Council. He was a university professor in a country split between contrasting ideologies, with Soviet communism and Western democracy each tugging at the reforming German heart — a heart that beat most passionately in the universities where he lived and worked. Decades later his students continued to meet — often with Ratzinger present — indicating the enduring influence of the professor-theologian. He could both grasp and articulate the malaise and acedia of people while offering hope for their redemption. Yet, in spite of all these things, he was made the prime target in a culture crying for tolerance even as anti-Catholicism remained the last acceptable prejudice. “Anyone who is not aware of the intellectual caliber of Benedict simply reveals his own incompetence or incomprehension,” James V. Schall, S.J., wrote shortly after Benedict’s abdication.
“The person who thinks the Pope only concentrates on books, far away from people’s real problems,” Benedict’s secretary of state, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, said in 2012, “is very mistaken.” Whenever he was called in for a new role of service, Benedict inevitably redoubled his efforts with urgent news to share. In responding to the era of unbelief, he renewed his own vocational commitment and fearlessly, as a Pope in his seventies and eighties with nothing to lose, he treaded unguarded and open before peoples in ways that no politician could ever dare. He challenged nations on their own turf, whether in Paris, London, or Berlin — asserting with compassion and conviction that God could not be excluded from the public square while reminding the faithful that victory had been won on the Cross. Man’s mortal self, however, suffers from an “epidemic of heart,” he said after his retirement, which “leads to corruption and other dirty things, those that lead man only to think of himself and not of the good.”
In spite of observations of a world gone awry, Benedict’s testimony to living a joy-filled life rooted in the triune God and to the Holy Spirit’s presence as an active, living force shone forth in his pontificate. “Where joylessness rules and humor dies, we may be certain that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, is not present.”
Because the resignation of Benedict XVI has often been spun as a narrative of weak leadership forced out by corrupting agendas around him, it may be easy to forget that it occurred during the Church’s Year of Faith. That such a theme was integral to the Pope’s agenda for fostering a sense of critical awareness that the gift of faith could no longer be taken for granted in the public sphere was demonstrated in the document Benedict wrote announcing his intention for the Year of Faith, Porta Fidei (The Gate of Faith): “Ever since the start of my ministry as Successor of Peter, I have spoken of the need to rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ.”
It often happens that Christians are more concerned for the social, cultural and political consequences of their commitment, continuing to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition for life in society. In reality, not only can this presupposition no longer be taken for granted, but it is often openly denied. Whereas in the past it was possible to recognize a unitary cultural matrix, broadly accepted in its appeal to the content of the faith and the values inspired by it, today this no longer seems to be the case in large swathes of society, because of a profound crisis of faith that has affected many people.
A profound crisis of faith that has affected many people: this is what concerned Joseph Ratzinger throughout his life. This is what he sought to cure in those disillusioned by material accumulation and constant distraction, burdened by stress and unhappiness — that they might be reintroduced to the Source of life, to find mystery in a time of predictability. Benedict XVI, in the mold of the great popes throughout history, stood as a warrior of faith, encouraging those who dared to listen and spurred on by their own conversions to follow his lead into their own
Westminster Halls and Reichstags, their own Areopagi. Fond of citing Augustine, Benedict clearly saw that what was being played out at this very time mirrored Augustine’s observation of the battle between the “city of the flesh” and the “city of the spirit.” This was the quintessential “Christian situation, this battle between two kinds of love.”
“But in the end, it can only be a proposal,” Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete once said of faith. “The greatness and mystery is our freedom. We can accept it. We can move on to something else.”
The only proposal worth dying for, as put forth by Benedict XVI, is to seek out Christ, and He has given us a lifetime of signposts to follow in every aspect of life: in formation of the Christian faith, in loving others, in personal vocation, in education, and in how we see the surface of the natural world and the beauty around it. It means not blind obedience but an embrace of one of Benedict’s favorite themes: the freedom and the will of the human person to respond accordingly to that proposal. Our reluctance to do so in this day and age may echo Franz Kafka’s warning to his friend: “Christ is an abyss of light, into which, unless you close your eyes you will fall headlong.” Beauty, Pope Benedict believed, is what is revealed once we have overcome fear.
Through his lifetime of bridge building, Benedict XVI proposes to be the Virgil to the Dantes of our generation, calling for both a New Evangelization and a new metanoia — a sacramental return to Christ and His Church. The Father of the West who had guided the poet has become the Holy Father who did the unthinkable, and now he wishes simply to be called Father Benedict even amidst the celebrations of his service.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Mr Day’s Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.