“April is the cruelest month,” Eliot said in his poem “The Wasteland”. Perhaps no one more than Benedict XVI understands this: he was born on a Holy Saturday in mid-April, baptized on the same day, and he turned 90 on April 16, Easter Sunday. It is the fourth year since he retired to the mountain, to the Monastery of Mater Ecclesiae.
April is a cruel month because – as Christopher Altieri, General Manager of Vocaris Media, explains – “we always talk of spring in positive terms, but we undervalue the effort and fatigue of spring: all of that pollen given off, of which only a small part will get to flower; the effort of a reawakening that needs to bring about summer. Spring is beautiful, but also deeply painful.”
Pope Benedict lived this spring, beautiful and painful at the same time. Spring in the Church’s history was, for him, the Second Vatican Council. He described the first day of the Council as “a beautiful day,” but his words in fact referred to the whole assembly. That very day was also a painful day.
Since Benedict ascended the mountain to live out the time of his prayerful intercession on behalf of the Church, the bitterness he felt during his pontificate when he spoke of the Second Vatican Council has been forgotten. Nevertheless, he felt the need to clarify that period of Church history since the beginning of the pontificate. In his first Christmas speech to Roman Curia back in 2005, he stressed that the Council have to interpreted through the lenses of continuity. That is: the Council was not a destructive spring, but a spring called to harvest new fruits. It was a renewal within continuity, not a genetically modified organism of faith, just as every year nature is renewed in spring. At the end of the pontificate during his last meeting with the clergy of Rome, he wanted to return to the notion once more, as if that was the thread of the whole pontificate. He said that there was a media Council and a real Council. And he noted that the media Council overtook the real Council.
That the experience of the Second Vatican Council was a crossroad for Benedict is testified by the short off-the-cuff speech he made at the end of the torchlight procession that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. It was October 11, 2012. Leaning out of the window of the Apostolic Palace as St. John XXIII did 50 years before, Benedict bore the feeling of a changed world and of betrayed expectations.
He said: “We were happy — I would say — and full of enthusiasm. The great Ecumenical Council had begun; we were sure that a new spring of the Church was in sight, a new Pentecost with a new, strong presence of the freeing grace of the Gospel.”
Then, he added: “We are also happy today, we hold joy in our hearts, but I would say it is perhaps a more measured joy, a humble joy. In these 50 years we have learned and experienced that original sin exists and that it can be expressed as personal sins which can become structures of sin. We have seen that in the field of the Lord there are always tares. We have seen that even in Peter’s net there were bad fish. We have seen that human frailty is present in the Church, that the barque of the Church is even sailing against the wind in storms that threaten the ship, and at times we have thought: ‘the Lord is asleep and has forgotten us’.”
Showing an awareness that the sin was present in the Church revealed the good faith of Pope Benedict, a professor full of faith who had learned, at his personal expense, that not everything done within the Church is really for the greater glory of God. But he also became ever more aware that sin could be overcome only setting one’s gaze on Christ with ongoing prayer. “I have no other program than being guided by Him,” he said at the beginning of the pontificate.
Epitomizing in a few lines the extraordinary legacy left by such a master of thought is impossible. But it is possible to give an overview. Pope Benedict XVI’s thought is built like one of the great medieval cathedrals: it is a real journey of the mind to God (itinerarium mentis in Deum). Reading him, we immediately think of the Duomo of Milan, of the 1000 years of the Strasbourg Cathedral, of Notre Dame de Paris or of the Cologne Cathedral, but also of the Sagrada Familia that Pope Benedict XVI consecrated in 2010. All of these buildings were rationally founded, and were aimed at giving a rational and precise explanation of the presence of God, while encouraging others in prayer.
For Pope Benedict there are no doubts: believing means seeking after the truth. And truth cannot be possessed. It must be searched for continually and without bad faith. That is an ambitious project for pure men, perhaps comparable to the huge spiritual renewal undertaken by St. Gregory the Great. If one believes, all else is a consequence.
This is how Pope Benedict XVI’s Magisterium is in the end a cry of pain because the world has lost faith. In his paper, “The New Pagans and the Church,” Benedict speaks about Christians who although they are convinced to live as Christians, in the end are pagans. He made this discovery during confession. The paper was published in the 1950s. Today, after pragmatic nihilism has dramatically made its way within the lives of Christians, the issue is more current than ever.
Benedict does not launch pragmatic challenges. His Church must be a Church committed to social issues, to helping the poor and caring for the least ones. But this pragmatic commitment is only what comes from faith. Benedict challenged the world, and above all he challenged Christians: he asked them to quit living as though God does not exist.
The model he offers is that of medieval monks. Not by chance did he take the name of Benedict, the founder of the monastic age. The first aim of those monks was quaerere Deum, seeking for God, as Benedict emphasized in his memorable lecture at the College des Bernardins in Paris in 2008.
The goal is that of a Church less chained to works, and freer to believe in God, as Benedict explained in his speeches during his last trip to Germany in 2011. He was speaking before the German clergy he knew well, who are wealthy because of the Church tax and at the same time very poor in vocations and even in practicing faithful, as witnessed by the most recent data.
For Benedict, there can be no dialogue without a common search for truth. More and more he claimed that “atheists, because of their search for God, go into the Kingdom of heaven before Christians.” In this way, he invited Christians not to take the faith for granted: this is another of the signs of our times.
How much Benedict believed that faith cannot be taken for granted became evident when he faced the scandal of clergy pedophilia, a worldwide phenomenon that came on the scene as a slap in the Church’s face.
The letter he wrote in 2010 to the Catholics of Ireland is composed both of the Pope’s apology for the scandal and also a very lucid reading of the facts that occurred after the Second Vatican Council. Benedict wrote: “The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations. It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse, which has contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings.”
Setting one’s gaze on Christ also means, in the end, being aware of our narrowness, of our sin.
These are the great topics of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate. Any evaluation of his government becomes secondary, because everything is part of this search for truth. Being Christian, for Benedict, is real life.
We see, however, that his pontificate was perfectly linear, even in terms of the decisions of his government: from the lifting of restrictions on the use of St Pius V’s Missal to the reform of financial transparency; from the establishment of a dicastery for the promotion of the new evangelization to his decision to reform access to the seminaries and his tireless work to purify the Church from scandals, especially in the field of sex abuse by clergy; from the new statutes of Caritas Internationalis to the reform of the Penal Code of Vatican City State, which Benedict started and Pope Francis signed. And lastly, diplomacy based upon truth.
The search of truth bore fruit. One example above all: the Regensburg Lecture. Although it created turmoil, it was the only possible way to motivate a group of Islamic leaders to give Islam a new interpretation and to solve the biggest crisis within Islam, as Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, SJ, has put it. That lecture brought about a letter signed by 138 Muslim leaders, and it led to a Catholic-Islamic Forum of which Pope Francis can harvest the fruits, even by rekindling relations with the al-Azhar University.
Pope Benedict XVI carried forward a silent reform, characterized by precise thinking that only a few understood. The aim was to foster the unity of the Church starting from a collegiality based upon mutual collaboration, with consciousness that only the truth and the true faith make of churchmen examples able to attract others to Catholicism. Churchmen must be examples of joy, because in the end Benedict always preached the Gospel of Joy.
This is, in my view, the greatest legacy of Pope Benedict XVI. This legacy is one of the best tools to respond to the issues raised by the secular world. In the end, the Protestant way of thinking would never fascinate anyone if faith were considered not as something pragmatic, but as part of life. Gender would never be an option if men and women would consider themselves as part of creation and as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. Europe would not live from one crisis to another, if rationalist and post- Enlightenment movements had not detached it from the search for God. And today there would not be a movement of thought holding that less religion would lead to less violence: instead, everyone would be aware that the opposite is true. So no one would be frightened to defend babies and to decry abortion, as there would be no Catholic universities such as Louvain ready to get rid of those who speak clearly on the issue in an effort to be politically correct.
It seems simple. It is not. You need faith, lucidity of thought, love of God and of neighbor. Joseph Ratzinger wrote in his essay, “Liberation Theology and Other Challenges” that “the human mind seems ever more capable of devising new means of destruction rather than new paths to life. It is more ingenious in sending weapons to war in every angle of the world than in bringing bread there. Why does all of this happen? Because our souls suffer from malnutrition, our hearts are blind and hardened. The world is in disorder because our hearts are in disorder, since they lack love and therefore cannot reason in the way of justice.” These words represent the most precise diagnosis of the current situation.
Pope Benedict XVI was born in April, the cruelest month. He did not live only during the Church’s spring, but also during the so-called spring of the World. During his years, the Church passed through the challenges of secularization, and was fascinated by it. But secularization is also a tempting demon. Religion today has been reduced to a social agency, with no weight in history. God was put aside, and subtly, not violently, as happened in the communist countries – which, in fact, seem nowadays to be the only ones to understand the importance of faith in public life.
Ratzinger’s Schuelerkreis, the circle of his former students, developed all the themes of this world crisis. And Benedict gave a response that unmasked the plans of the world. He asked it to set its gaze on Jesus, detaching Jesus from any rationalist interpretation, and to this aim he dedicated his trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth, the last of his theological works. By doing this he showed that the forces of the world which aimed at liberating the Church from the chain of the doctrine were in fact forces that wanted to chain the salvific message of Jesus.
We are talking of strong forces, of lobbies that do not suffer when their economic power is questioned, but rather suffer when their thought is unmasked. Perhaps, it is the season of the new catacombs for the Church. Certainly for Benedict XVI it is a time for prayer. After he led the Church to penance in Fatima and relaunched the new evangelization with the Year of Faith, now is the time for intercession.