Guest writersHanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz

Benedict XVI, a prophet in Israel

Benedict XVI is a figure that made headlines, inspired students and moved millions of people, but always with a humility and serenity that those who knew the Pope Emeritus emphasize.

January 5, 2023-Reading time: 6 minutes
benedict xvi

Benedict XVI in Italy (CNS photo/Reuters/Vatican Pool)

Among the various encounters I had with the professor, later Cardinal and then Pope Benedict, one stands out: the unexpected honor of speaking about the New Evangelization in conversations with his "Student Circle" at the summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in August 2011. I coupled my experience with the predominantly agnostic audience at the Technical University (TU) of Dresden with a look at encouraging philosophical developments, for precisely in the postmodern era many thinkers are (again) making use of the "Thesaurus"biblical. My theme, "Athens and Jerusalem", was dedicated to the Pope as a "theorist of reason".

In the beautiful but simple setting of Castel Gandolfo, we met again with the Professor who, still somewhat tired and hunched over from the World Youth Day in Madrid, nevertheless followed the conferences attentively and addressed the 60 students, humorously containing their longer intellectual disquisitions and bringing them back to the theme, and also correcting philological or other speculations. There was a joyful atmosphere of friendship, permeated also by the atmosphere of a university seminary, when the Holy Father encouraged his "students" to take a position or raised objections. Above all, the remarkable simplicity of his demeanor was impressive, as I had already experienced on several occasions. There was no "court," and one could move freely through the designated rooms and enjoy the wonderful view of Lake Albano and the irrigated gardens, as far as a Rome blurred in the mist.

The character of Benedict XVI

The classic Angelus prayer with a brief address by the Pope took place at noon on Sunday. Already an hour before, the inner courtyard of Castel Gandolfo was packed with pilgrims. The enthusiasm was already palpable, like a wave, long before the Pope appeared and, with some difficulty, restored calm. The naturalness and great joy with which they greeted him was noticeable, and I thought with shame about the Central European media, which had developed a real mastery in underestimating even great and visible successes, such as World Youth Day. One wondered why not a few media deform, or want to deform, his image. His unmistakable and calm charisma, his depth and wisdom undoubtedly reached those who had their eyes open. When I relate these meetings to the first one at Rothenfels Castle (Burg Rothenfels) in 1976, they still have something in common: the tranquility, the profound kindness, the serenity.

In the last impressions, something else prevailed: humility. And this attitude is probably the most surprising thing for a Pope. Perhaps it seems strange to underline this impression by turning to Goethe: "The greatest people I have ever known, and who had heaven and earth free before their eyes, were humble and knew what they had to appreciate gradually" (Artemis Gedenkausgabe 18, 515). "Gradually" means to know a hierarchy of goods, to have developed a capacity to discern in diversity what is important. And again, in another tone: "All persons endowed with natural strength, both physical and spiritual, are as a rule modest" (Ibid. 8, 147).

The Pope and public opinion

The late Pope Emeritus needs no such judgments, but it is remarkable how this immediate impression of humility and reserve is often overlooked, perhaps even hastily or deliberately twisted. This allusion can be applied to what are possibly the silliest media reproaches leveled at him, from "Panzerkardinal" to "God's rottweiler" (actually, one resists repeating this nonsense). These errors are a new confirmation of a stupidity that is evil, or of a malice that is stupidity (or perhaps just desperation). But they are also a sign of a climate that sensed something invincible in this man and in his ministry, and that is why he wanted to intervene, with an instinct of distortion and a desire to misunderstand that nevertheless, and for that reason, hurts.

This places man and his task in close proximity. It is implied whenever approval and contradiction meet. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote with impressive acuity about the first Pope: "Peter must have looked quite ridiculous when he was crucified with his feet up; it was just a good joke ..., and the way his own juice was constantly dripping from his nose. ... It is all very well that the crucifixion is here upside down; avoid any confusion, and in spite of this, an evocative reflection of the unique, pure, upright, is created in the murky waters of the Christian-too Christian. Penance is done for unthinkable faults, piled up until the system collapsed".

And Balthasar expresses the tremendous thought that ministry in the Church, from its first representative, has to do with vicariously bearing guilt. "Woe to us, if there is no longer the point where the sin of us all gathers to manifest itself, just as the poison circulating in the organism concentrates in one place and bursts out like an abscess. And so blessed is the office - be it pope, bishops, or simple priests who stand firm, or anyone who takes allusion when it is said 'the Church should' - who gives himself to this function of being the focus of the disease" (Clarifications. On the examination of spiritsFribourg 1971, 9).

For those who find these statements too bitter, there are the fruits of this bitterness. They come from Jacob's ceaseless struggle, without which the old and the new Israel are unthinkable. This intertwining of challenge and blessing, of resistance and victory, of night and final dawn, is a message of the essence of God and the essence of the elect. God's power does not come by smashing. It demands a maximum of strength, a "optimum virtutis"but it does not overwhelm. As resistance it even wants to be grasped as love. What comes as resistance and apparent counter-power, comes - when the good fight is fought - as blessing. That is why there is something steely and unattainable in the Pope's calm and vulnerable figure. Precisely his trips abroad, considered in advance a failure, for example the trip to England, or also to the difficult Germany, became remarkable victories. An Italian rock singer considered him "cool". It may be an unsubtle buzzword, but it hits the nail on the head.

I apologize for quoting Goethe for the third time, this time for the sake of a depth that is comparable in these two Germans. The quote comes from Goethe's great geological essay on granite rocks, an image that - in my opinion - is also somewhat symbolic of Joseph Ratzinger's way of being: "So lonely, I say, does man feel that he only wants to open his soul to the oldest, earliest and deepest feelings of truth".

Benedict XVI and the Logos

So the last thought goes to the truth that is above this pontificate. When was the vindication of reason last defended by a Pope in such a relentless, yet attractive way? And when was the reasonableness of faith and the ecumenism of reason, existing already since Greek antiquity, which can bring together philosophies, theologies and sciences? The Song of Songs of the Logos by Benedict XVI accesses precisely to the "court of the Gentiles", and has stimulated a conversation that leaves the stagnation of the postmodern void of meaning. Jerusalem "has to do" with Athens, and that despite all the verdicts, be they of a sectarian orthodoxy, on the one hand, or of a sectarian science, on the other. "You can't tighten a rope if you only hold it on one side," said Heiner Müller, the playwright of the German Democratic Republic, in connection with the (apparently lost) beyond (Lettre international 24, 1994). Thus, with Joseph Ratzinger, patristics awakens to an unexpected new life, which owes to the Logos the discernment of the spirits, in order to implant the wisdom of the ancient world in the young Christianity. In this way, it not only "saves" antiquity and the early Church for the new age, but also rescues the present moment from its contradictory shrugging of shoulders about truth. There is a piety of thought, which is at the same time conversion to reality.

This ability to clarify the ungraspable, the controversial, with faith in the possibility of truth, was already in place from the beginning, and became visible very early on. Let us listen to the voice of Ida Friederike Görres (1901-1971), the incorruptible. In a letter of November 28, 1968, to Paulus Gordan, a Benedictine in Beuron, she writes about the "ecclesiastical distress" that is observed throughout the country in the face of the rapid collapse of a certain provincial Catholicism as a result of the propaganda of 1968. But now, she adds, she has found her "prophet in Israel", a young Professor Ratzinger in Tübingen, unknown to her until then, who could become "the theological conscience of the German Church".

"Ecce, unus propheta in Israel". With these lines I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

The authorHanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz

Ratzinger Prize 2021

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