Father Ratzinger of the Vatican
Awoke this morning, a little late from being up very late, with a fine Lenten feeling of desolation. His Holiness chose to resign with effect on a Thursday; the last day of a calendar month. He chose eight o’clock in the evening because this had been the end of his usual working day. From that moment the sedes vacans comes back into view, the empty place between papal reigns & in this case a Lent within Lent. Once again, I do not dispute Pope Benedict’s decision. I accept his authority in principle, but more fundamentally I trust it.
Nor, really, do I resent the malice & ignorance of much of the world’s media, in covering the event as they have done, & as they are likely to do today, & throughout the Conclave, & when they will express their practised surprise & disgust at the “backwardness of the Church” when the new Pope is chosen. They are what they are, & that must also be accepted.
As a “pundit” of some kind, or let us say “Essayist” now for it sounds more distinguished, I often feel like a kid pointing a battery torch to the heavens & declaring, “Let there be Light!” This was especially so on this Friday morning, the last of the pontificate of my greatest living Catholic hero; one who had the curious habit of speaking & writing only on topics he knew something about, & trying never to strike a pose. A man whose actions consistently displayed serenity, whether refusing to retaliate in kind to low attacks, or acting promptly & boldly when circumstances required such courage.
This has been evident even in the last fortnight, through which he has been making administrative decisions that could so easily have been shirked, & left to his successor; while leaving to his successor what will require consecutive action over much longer stretches of time. He has shown the best, the very best, of the German & Bavarian qualities mixed into his Catholic formation. His successor is bound to find that, whatever they contain, the files will be in good & conscientious order. This is a moral virtue, & remains so however it is parodied or satirized: the cultivation of mind & habits capable of making crisp distinctions, & doing what is necessary without sloth, & without pride.
He has been condemned by the world for many petty things, & many imaginary. He has been condemned even for not being someone else; for knowing himself & knowing his limitations, & making them his strengths.
This is something I’ve found again & again when the media have condemned some outrageous thing he is supposed to have said; or quoted with exulting approval something even more outrageous. I go to the text & find that he said no such thing. Nor, upon thinking it through, may I condemn him for failing to anticipate the media reaction. For one may successfully locate & disarm a thousand bombs in a thickly-laid minefield. There is no foreseeing number one thousand & one.
I expect, over time, we will learn much more of the history of his papacy — the actual history as opposed to the “first draught.” If there has been one most exemplary virtue, allied with a profound insight into the management of human affairs, it has been a function of Pope Benedict’s humility. It is the virtue of understanding how much can be achieved when one has no wish to take the credit. So many good things are attempted by politicians, for instance, that go badly wrong because of this moral oversight. They will “do the right thing,” but demand to be seen doing it. And that little demand alone unravels all the good. To serve is to serve, interests beyond one’s own; one cannot serve the “two gods” of conflicting interests. His Holiness has been, to my view, a most exhilarating example of a man without guile, of a man who long ago tamed the natural propensity towards self-service.
Fortunately he has left some books behind him; quite a few, & everywhere in them more than is apparent to a first reading. I returned, in recent weeks, to reading some of his Wednesday “talks” or homilies on the holy men & women of Catholic history. At first I thought them as brief & casual as any scheduled weekly “sermon” he must “do,” as part of a busy & distracting schedule; as “throwaway” by comparison to his major, longer tracts; as learned & dogmatically sound but nevertheless, passing chatter. They are not. Themes have been carried from week to week, & subtle yet very important points recalled successively from many angles. Returning to them, I found something like an “autobiography of the Church” had been taught: one in which the key events are not the outward ones of history. The major historical events are placed for orientation only in the background. It is the inward history that is being told, a most remarkable narrative in which we are looking at events through what I can only describe as “the medium of holiness.” Not, as it were, “through the eyes of the Saints,” as simple hagiography; Benedict is instead trying to trace through them the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit. It is not “intellectualism” he has offered. An extraordinary learning is required for it, but put entirely at the service of an act of meditation.
So he is not really going away, & quite apart from the Gethsemane of prayer into which he enters, & the unearthly Life that follows, we are not finished with him yet. He has taught what he will continue teaching: not, for the most part, through formal encyclicals & proclamations but in a kindly, & slightly aloof manner, from out of the chastity in Love — as Father Ratzinger of the Vatican.