An admirable theologian, a shrewd diplomat and a most influential ecclesiastic: these are some of the attributes of the one who has just departed this life, Pope Benedict XVI. Hardly anyone could more aptly fulfil all the requirements for the office of Supreme Pontiff in our times than Joseph Ratzinger; and I believe there are few who would dare deny it.
However, if it is true that he possessed such qualities, it is also true that he acquired them in the course of a very long trajectory of experiences that formed this personality, as striking as it was discreet. Therefore, the best way to gain a deeper understanding of the figure of Benedict XVI is to analyse his life.
A boy destined for the priesthood is born in Bavaria
Joseph Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927 into a modest family in the Bavarian village of Marktl am Inn, in an atmosphere of marked joy and religiosity. Such surroundings helped his faith to take root and produced in him a real attraction for the Church, which very soon awoke in his soul the desire to become a priest.
Despite the problems arising from the Second World War, during which he had to serve in the German army, he was able to complete his studies and was finally ordained a priest on June 29, 1951.
Influential expert during the Second Vatican Council
Ratzinger soon stood out as an eminently learned man, assuming the post of professor in 1952 and obtaining his doctorate in Theology as early as 1953.
It was no coincidence that at the time of the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Joseph Frings, Archbishop of Cologne, summoned him to be his private theological advisor in preparing the schemas to be read at the Council sessions.
His intellectual capacity was so outstanding that the Bavarian priest soon became one of the experts of the magna assembly, exerting a great influence on its development.
Guardian of the deposit of the Faith
However, Ratzinger was not destined to remain a mere scholar. His activity in the Church would extend to a more pastoral sphere: appointed Archbishop of Munich, he received episcopal ordination on May 28, 1977 and a month later was created Cardinal by Pope Paul VI.
In February 1982, the new Cardinal was transferred to Rome. There he would not govern a diocese, but exercise an effective ascendancy over the Universal Church as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Now we see Ratzinger, with his beret and briefcase, daily crossing St. Peter’s Square to his office, where he spends the entire day – even on holidays – in intense activity: tirelessly reading countless works, always in their original language; preparing Congregation documents; judging serious offenses; dealing with secret texts, such as the message of Fatima, “the most prophetic of all modern apparitions.”1
His doctrinal firmness – which earned him the epithet Panzerkardinal from his detractors, in an allusion to German tanks – gave him increasing prominence in the ecclesiastical body, being unanimously recognized as John Paul II’s right arm, especially in the last decade of his pontificate. With the Pope’s death in 2005, Ratzinger’s name was the one to receive the most votes to succeed him.
Only on rare occasions has St. Peter’s Square been the scene of greater demonstrations of enthusiasm than on that April 19, 2005, when the election of Joseph Ratzinger – thenceforth Benedict XVI – as the 265th successor of St. Peter was announced. He chose for his papal coat of arms the same phrase as that of his episcopal office, indicating his goal as shepherd: “Cooperatores veritatis – Fellow workers in the truth” (3 Jn 1:8).
How would the one who was considered intransigent by his detractors act as Pope? His first encyclical, Deus caritas est, surprised the ecclesiastical sphere, for it brought to light the Ratzinger of harmony and union: “To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world – this is the invitation I would like to extend with the present Encyclical.”2
While yet at the beginning of his pontificate, he consecrated it to the Virgin of Fatima, perhaps insinuating with this act what he would clearly state later on about the relevance of the apparitions of Our Lady in the Cova da Iria. It is quite clear that his readings as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith deeply marked him, and gave him some insights on the future of the Mystical Body of Christ.
The mustard seed
Benedict XVI did much as the visible head of the Church; above all, much remained to be done. So it was with astonishment that, on that historic February 11, 2013, the world received the news of his resignation as Supreme Pontiff. He claimed to have already exhausted his energies, although his vital force would allow him to live for almost ten more years.
The announcement caused not only astonishment, but also sadness, for the German Pope enjoyed worldwide esteem. But there was also a certain apprehension, as everyone wondered about the future of the Church after his resignation.
Certainly Benedict XVI pondered the consequences of this act very carefully before carrying it out. Soon after his election, he had stated that each one would be called to render account to the Supreme Judge for all that he had done or failed to do for the full and visible unity of His disciples.3 In this frame of mind he inaugurated his pontificate; in it he would bring it to a close, and in it he would enter into silence and recollection, like the seed that is embedded into the earth. The Vicar of Christ thus became a symbol of the Kingdom of God, compared by Jesus to a mustard seed (cf. Lk 13:19).
Now, if we are presently saddened by the absence of the seed, let us recognize that this is the moment when it “bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). Certain missions are only fully accomplished in eternal life. How will Benedict XVI’s vocation as a “fellow worker in the truth” be fulfilled hereafter?
The words he once uttered seem to have taken on a certain significance: “We are possibly facing a new and different epoch in the history of the Church. In it, Christianity will once again be under the sign of the mustard seed.” And once again taking up the theme later on in the same work, he added: “But it is precisely from there that [it] always rejuvenates.”4
The seed has been buried, the future will reveal to us what shoots will be born. One certainty remains: in the end, the Kingdom of God will flourish, because Christ, who promised it to us, is immortal. ◊
Taken from the Heralds of the Gospel magazine, #184.
1 BENEDICT XVI. Regina cœli, 13/5/2007.
2 BENEDICT XVI. Deus caritas est, n.39.
3 Cf. BENEDICT XVI. Message to the Universal Church at the end of the Holy Mass with the Cardinal Electors, 20/4/2005.
4 RATZINGER, Joseph. O sal da terra. 2.ed. Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 2005, p.15; 100.