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Good-Bye to Benedict

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 02/11/13

A priest reflects on Benedict's pontificate

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In the Spring of 2005 I was living in England and had an appointment with the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster about the possibility of being ordained as a Catholic priest. He cancelled. Pope John Paul II had just died and a certain event in the Sistine Chapel took precedence over my appointment.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor kept his appointment with me later in April of that year after he had returned from the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. I couldn’t help asking the cardinal about the “inside story.” While I can’t divulge the details of our conversation, I can repeat what the Cardinal has written elsewhere, that the election of Ratzinger was swift and sure. He was the obvious choice and as the successor of Peter he stepped into the shoes of the fisherman with confidence and a clear voice.
Ratzinger took the name Benedict in honor of Benedict XV– a humble and seemingly insignificant pope who nevertheless steered the church through the terrible years of the first world war. More importantly, he took the name of St Benedict–the patron of Europe. The monasteries St Benedict planted were small seeds of learning, prayer, ingenuity and work which grew into the great civilization of medieval Christendom and laid the foundations for all of European civilization.  Ratzinger also 
hoped to plant a seed of faith that would blossom, perhaps centuries later, in a new European Christendom.
His efforts to do this, for a man his age, were extraordinary. Despite his reputation as a Vatican hard-liner, and slurs against his name because of his position as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, God’s Rotweiller or “Ratzi the Nazi” emerged as a gentle, diplomatic and intelligent scholar. The “German Shepherd” turned out to have a warm and kindly nature, and far from being a watchdog was more of a lap dog. To the millions of young people who turned up for World Youth Days he was more grandfather than “Holy Father.”
He globe trotted the world as much as he was able, with triumphant visits (among others) to the UK and the United States. In an unprecedented way he published books under his name, Joseph Ratzinger, and made clear they were private scholarly studies–not papal pronouncements. However, he also wrote three encylicals “God is Love,” “Saved by Hope” and ”Love in Truth.” These writings expressed his personalist spirituality. 
For Pope Benedict faith is a great adventure and the heart of the Christian faith is a living and vital relationship with Jesus Christ the Son of God and Son of Man. This same emphasis on personal relationship warmed all that he did as Pope. From a personal relationship with God comes a loving relationship with others. So he reached out to believers of other faiths, worked hard to reconcile disgruntled Catholic traditionalists and took an unprecedented step in establishing the Anglican Ordinariate–a kind of church within the Church for those from the Anglican tradition.
Benedict XVI waded into the culture wars diagnosing what he called “the dictatorship of relativism.” By this he meant that modern culture was adrift on a chaotic sea of personal opinion, sentimentality, utilitarianism and political correctness. Without any moorings in objective truth, modern man had no resources with which to make the vitally important decisions facing mankind. Without such moorings, Benedict argued, there could be no real culture and no real morality. 
Benedict could have warned that without a basis for morality the only result for society would be not just the “dictatorship of relativism” but a true dictatorship. With no objectively true basis for morality or civil behavior the only power remaining to enforce right behaviors will be the power of the civil state–the police and law courts. And without an objective moral imperative those institutions of politics, the police and the courts, would also be subject to the cruel and basic demands of practicality and the imposition of an ideology.

Benedict’s departure has all the grace and surprise of his entire career. I once met him in the middle of St Peter’s Square. On a visit to Rome I was standing as a tourist gazing at the facade of the great basilica when I noticed a prelate clad in a cassock with a dark overcoat on top. He wore a simple black beret and carried a briefcase as we walked across to the offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I recognized him, nodded and said good morning. He nodded back politely, smiled his gentle smile and continued on his way.
When he took up the mantle of Peter he explained that he was just a simple laborer in the Lord’s vineyard. His papacy has been one of intelligence, personal warmth and an authentic faith. Now it is as if he is saying to the world what he indicated to me that morning. He is giving us a polite and warm smile, nodding affirmation to us and then going quietly on his way.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is the author of The Gargoyle Code–a Screwtape Letters type book for Lent. Connect with his blog and browse his books and be in touch at
Pope Benedict XVI
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