We were probably not ready for a Pope like Benedict XVI. Because Benedict XVI tried to propel the Church to another level, outside the fences imposed by society and the common debate. His search for God led him to look beyond the fashions of the time, trying to find the deep meaning of all things. And yes, we were not used to this God-facing search for truth.
Let’s be clear: John Paul II was a mystic before being a Pope, capable of concentrating on every situation and of praying the Rosary; Paul VI was an ascetic of thought, tormented by the problems of a Church to be brought into the world; John XXIII was very attached to Roman forms and traditions as only peasants with firm faith can do. And I could go back in time to show that all the popes before Benedict XVI had their mystical form, their asceticism.
Benedict XVI, however, asked for a further step. Benedict XVI wanted faith to be nourished by reason. Indeed, as St. Peter’s letter said, to know how to give the reasons for hope.
At the same time, however, Benedict XVI preached a humble, sure faith, full of joy at the encounter with the Risen One, and confident that that encounter took place. Benedict XVI’s great battle was not, therefore, against secularism, an evil external to the Church, with which he could debate and have disagreements. His great battle was instead against the internal enemies of the Church itself.
It was a battle against sneaky enemies. Benedict XVI had been worried, since the 1950s, by neo-paganism, by Christians who proclaimed themselves Christians without living as Christians. Thus, his concern became that of Christians who no longer believed in Christianity and even came to question their historical truths of faith.
He was a scholar, Benedict XVI. As a scholar, however, he knew that truth could not be possessed, and reality could not be unpacked except at the price of making it a little less truthful. Everything holds together in a strange balance of the cosmos that can only come from God.
Thus Benedict XVI criticizes the historical method – a critic that even goes as far as to question the Gospel, and wrote a trilogy of books on Jesus of Nazareth that means this: the Gospel is not just a symbolic book that recounts an abstract faith, but it is an actual book with a verifiable story.
And Jesus cannot be that character adopted and exploited in any form, and he cannot be read only in a symbolic key. Instead, he is a historical character, a God who becomes flesh and blood and has a precise, linear, non-symbolic but real story.
There is already an extraordinary paradox because the Pope, who more than anyone tries to explain faith with reason, then anchors again the same faith to concrete life, to a story that is History. The faith of reason is the faith of the simple ones, the faith of those who believe for real.
It is probably a revolutionary passage that overcomes the dichotomies between the people and the elite, as only Christianity can do. However, this passage also overcomes the contrasts between traditionalists and progressives. It goes beyond any ideology. Indeed, Benedict XVI’s goal was to create harmony, not opposition.
This can be seen in many government decisions, even those least understood, of Benedict XVI as Pope. Such as the liberalization of the celebration of the ancient rite, made to create unity and not division, overcome opposition, and seek harmony between two different positions. But also like the diplomatic decisions, starting with those on China, which envisaged a clear proclamation of the truth, but also constant dialogue starting from solid foundations, without ever giving in or making concessions.
Everything in Benedict XVI had to have a purpose, and it had to reflect the purpose of the Church. For example, the reform of the Vatican finances was done with respect to the mission of the Church (and the Holy See explicitly declares it in the MONEYVAL report), and the reform of Caritas Internationalis was done with the idea of being consistent with the values that the Church preached.
There is no choice, even the slightest one, that does not start from a precise idea in Benedict XVI, and there is no idea that does not begin from Christian awareness and ultimately from the coming of Jesus Christ, true God, and true man.
Probably all this was too much in times when religion is considered almost a tinsel and when thinking in abstract terms becomes a problem. Reality can no longer be formed starting from an idea because it seems there are no means. This is where secularism is born, and the aversion to a religion that today’s men find difficult to understand. Devotion, yes. Irrationality, yes. Faith nourished by reason, no —that’s too difficult.
It is the vision that Benedict XVI has confronted throughout his life. Not only can man think big, he is called to do so, not simplifying yet simultaneously being simple. Man is called to live for great ideas and not for small results. And faith, the certainty of the resurrection, is perhaps the most incredible idea ever experienced by man.
The problem was not Benedict XVI. It was instead the problem of a Church that no longer believed or believed too much in itself. Thus Benedict XVI’s invitation to demundanization and taking advantage of the providential character of secularization trends that have allowed a freer, more true Church.
And thus Ratzinger’s prophecy of a Church that will be forced to abandon the structures of power and will become smaller, almost insignificant. But it was a positive prophecy because Benedict XVI emphasized that the world would then look upon, with hope, to the few remaining Christians who truly believed.
We looked to Benedict XVI with hope. He belonged to the old era, but the new had not yet begun. And it’s time to start building it, using his teachings well.