In Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton uses a striking strategy to back the Christian claim. He defines, piece by piece, the components of a sound philosophy, then demonstrates that Christianity is built of exactly these components. I would argue that, using the same method, you could build Pope Benedict from scratch.
If you set out to build an ideal leader for the Universal Catholic Church at the beginning of the 21st century, what characteristics would you look for?
You would look for humble origins—The first words of Joseph Ratzinger’s memoir, Milestones 1927–1977, are: “It is not at all easy to say what my hometown really is. As a rural policeman, my father was transferred frequently, so we were continually on the road. In 1937, however, when my father turned sixty and retired, we moved into the house in Hufschlag, outside Traunstein, and for the first time we had a real home.” That was the year our Pope turned ten.
In Salt of the Earth, the first of two books of interviews with Ratzinger conducted by journalist Peter Seewald, our Pope explains further: “We were not poor in the strict sense of the word, because [my father’s] monthly salary was guaranteed, but we did have to live very frugally and simply, for which I am very grateful.”
You would look for someone whose family was devout—In Salt of the Earth, Seewald asks him if his family home was “markedly religious.” Ratzinger answers: “One could certainly say that. My father was a very religious man. On Sundays he went to Mass at six, then to the main liturgy at nine, and again in the afternoon. My mother had a very warm and heartfelt piety. . . . Religion was quite central.”
In the second book of Seewald interviews, God and the World, the journalist asks him, “Do you have a particular way of praying the Rosary?” I love his answer: “I do it quite simply, just as my parents used to pray. Both of them loved the Rosary. And the older they got, the more they loved it.”
The Ratzingers had three children. Joseph’s older brother, Georg, became a priest as well, ordained on the same day as Joseph. Their sister, Maria, never married and, in her adult life, took care of the future Pope’s household when he was a bishop and then a cardinal.
You would look for someone who witnessed the greatest evil humanity has to offer—Namely, the Third Reich. Ratzinger’s father set a highly principled example, beginning in 1933, when Hitler became chancellor: “It mortified my father to have to work [as a village constable in Bavaria] for a government whose representatives he considered to be criminals, even if local policemen in the village were for the time being, thanks be to God, hardly affected by the changes. As far as I can see, the sole result of the new regime, during the four years we spent here, was the practice of spying and informing on priests who behaved as ‘enemies of the Reich.’ It goes without saying that my father had no part in this. On the contrary, he would warn and aid priests he knew were in danger.” (Milestones)
A family member recently asked me, “But wasn’t the Pope in the Hitler Youth?” The answer is, yes, but: “When the compulsory Hitler Youth was introduced in 1941, my brother was obliged to join. I was still too young, but later, as a seminarian, I was registered in the HY. As soon as I was out of the seminary, I never went back. And that was difficult, because the tuition reduction, which I really needed, was tied to proof of attendance at the HY. Thank goodness, there was a very understanding mathematics teacher. He himself was a Nazi but an honest man, who said to me, ‘Just go once and get the document so that we have it . . . ’ When he saw that I simply didn’t want to, he said, ‘I understand, I’ll take care of it,’ and so I was able to stay free of it.” (Salt of the Earth)
But didn’t Ratzinger served in the German army? Again, the answer is yes, but: “From 1943 on, the seminarians in Traunstein were all conscripted into antiaircraft work at Munich. I was sixteen years old, and for a whole year, from August ’43 to September ’44, we did our service.” (Salt of the Earth) This work, as a range-finder to help his native Bavaria protect itself against Allied bombers, was followed by noncombatant service in the infantry and time in an American POW camp when his native Traunstein was overrun by the Allies.
You would look for someone who witnessed the greatest Catholic event of our times, Vatican II, and participated actively in its deliberations—As theological advisor to a key cardinal at the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger had a significant role. I have neither the knowledge to discuss nor the time to research this question. Here it’s enough to note that Seewald asks him at one point: “One can probably say that without your involvement the reforms of the Second Vatican Council would have been unthinkable.”
Ratzinger answers this stunning question with suitable humility: “I feel that you are quite overestimating my role. If there had not also been a large group of like-minded people, no individual, not to mention a theologian who was totally unknown around the world, could have had any importance.” (Salt of the Earth)
You would look for a brilliant theologian—Ratzinger is the first professional theologian to become Pope in several hundred years, and what better time, when so many complex issues remain to be sorted out, even 45 years after the close of Vatican II? In the 1960s and 1970s, Ratzinger became a respected colleague of leading theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, and (more contentiously) Hans Küng. And he was a central player in the creation of the leading journal of Catholic theology to come out of that era, Communio, which is still in operation, although its cofounder recognizes its limitations: “It has for a long time remained too academic, and we have not succeeded in intervening in the contemporary debate in a sufficiently concrete and timely manner. Nevertheless, the publication performs an important service, and the years of collaboration with the community of editors widened my horizons and taught me many things.” (Milestones)
You would look for someone who humbled himself through obedience—In 1977, Ratzinger was appointed Cardinal of Munich and Freising in his native Bavaria, and by all accounts he relished the thought of developing his theology in familiar surroundings for the rest of his working life. At a Synod, also in 1977, he began to develop a working friendship with Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla. The following year, Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, and in 1981, after declining the offer previously, Ratzinger reluctantly agreed to move to Rome to become Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once known as the Holy Inquisition. He knew what this would mean: Perhaps never returning to Bavaria, perhaps never having the leisure to pursue his theological studies and writings, and doubtless becoming very unpopular. As he left Munich for Rome, he famously said to friends, “Not all news that comes from Rome will be pleasant.” He knew that as the Cardinal entrusted by the Pope with maintaining doctrinal purity among bishops, he would make plenty of enemies. By the time he became Pope himself in 2005, the shy theologian from Bavaria had been nicknamed the Panzerkardinal.
I like his answer when Seewald asks him if being German was an advantage or a disadvantage in his position of curial power. It is a remarkably kind and balanced answer: “We all know what Germans are supposed to be like. In that respect it’s easy to attribute decisions that incur displeasure to German stubbornness. Fanatical attachment to principles, lack of flexibility, all of that is also seen as an expression of the German spirit. When the term Panzerkardinal was coined, it certainly involved this sort of allusion to the fact that I am German. On the other hand, no one has ever, at least to my face, treated my Germanness with hostility or overemphasized its importance. In fact, it has become known everywhere that I don’t engage privately in politics but that I am part of a whole, so that what I do is not simply the expression of my private character as a German but comes out of the entire structure of curial ministries and offices.” (Salt of the Earth)
You would look for someone who did not want the Papacy—Seewald, whose interviews with Ratzinger spanned the decade of the 1990s, began his work as a lapsed Catholic and a communist, highly skeptical, perhaps even cynical about anything Ratzinger might say. His first question published in the first book, Salt of the Earth, is typical, a carefully prepared trap: “Your Eminence, it is said that the Pope is afraid of you. He asks himself: For heaven’s sake, what would Cardinal Ratzinger say about that?” Ratzinger laughed off the question: “He might say that jokingly, but he is definitely not afraid of me!”
By 2005, Seewald had returned to the Church, although he had to get over the suspicion that some would see this as “a cheap marketing stunt for the book, under the caption, ‘Cardinal Converts Communist to Catholic Church.’ So I did it silently—and secretly rejoiced.” In his third book about the Ratzinger/Benedict, Benedict XVI, An Intimate Portrait, published after the conclave of 2005, Seewald proved to my satisfaction that Ratzinger wanted nothing so much as to avoid election himself, retire from the Congregation, and return to Bavaria to live his last years in peace.
At midday on April 19, the day he would be elected, Ratzinger was “unsettled,” according to Seewald. He had emerged as the leading candidate in previous ballots, and was not comfortable with this fact. “As the course of the voting gradually led me to perceive that the guillotine was going to fall on me, so to speak,” he told Seewald after the fact, “I felt quite dizzy. I had believed I had completed my life’s work. [Then I] said to the Lord with keep conviction, “Don’t do this to me! You have younger and better men, who can approach this great task with very different élan and very different strength.”
As we know, the Lord had other ideas. I think that if you look closely at the photograph at the top of this post, taken as the newly elected Pope turned away from the cheering crowd, you can see in his eyes a combination of happiness, sadness, and overwhelming fatigue. The Spirit has carried Pope Benedict XVI forward for nearly five years now. Good health and long life to our Pope!