What was his secret? What made him so great?
What’s the secret of Benedict XVI? How did he become the Mozart of 20th century theology and the Successor of the Apostle Peter at a time when the boat of the Church was buffeted by the winds of distress?
This was precisely the question we posed almost 30 years ago to the then personal secretary of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Monsignor Josef Clemens, when the cardinal was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A German like his superior, Mons. Clemens would later be consecrated archbishop and hold important positions in the Holy See. His answer clears up many doubts.
The influence of a giant
“At the age of 23, Joseph Ratzinger dedicated two years of his life to study one of the greatest thinkers in history, St. Augustine, on whom he wrote his doctoral thesis,” the then Monsignor Clemens told us at the time. “When you spend so much time immersed in the thought of such a brilliant mind, your mind changes, deepens, becomes much more sensitive and acute.”
In this way we can understand much better what Joseph Ratzinger later told us as a theologian and as Pope: Christianity is fire. And therefore it’s not “boring”; rather it requires of us the passion of faith to renew the world – without forgetting who it is that moves the world.
If Ratzinger detested anything, it was improvisation or nonsense: Things have a reason, they are not there “just because.” Christianity is “salt,” not “sugar,” he used to repeat.
This is also why Benedict XVI was not a soft or manageable pope. Ratzinger too was made of this fiery matter. With his feet on the ground, but his soul in its place, always in tension towards the sublime, the Bavarian pontiff marked the Church in an unusual way.
It’s not by chance that he’s the pope who resigned, a gesture that places him in an unprecedented place in the history of the Church. In history, tout court.
The greatness of humility
Ratzinger had reflected a lot on Genesis. If there’s one thing that God does not tolerate, it’s pride: arrogant human pride that doesn’t recognize itself as a creature, that believes it can dominate and spoil nature, that exploits human beings.
Ratzinger wrote that the program of modernity was no longer to want to be images of God, but images of ourselves, to confer on ourselves power over the world without respecting God’s power or expecting anything from Him. And in his thought, this forgetfulness and turning our backs on God was the door to destruction and devastation. Ratzinger was right. He had thought in careful detail about the Spirit and creation, and he firmly believed in the Spirit who repairs, who forgives, who creates, who makes all things new. This creative and renewing Spirit did not allow itself to be contained, and the Bavarian Pope was aware of this. The Church might have its limits, but its Spirit doesn’t.
The Catholic Church is committed to tolerance, respect, friendship, and peace among all peoples. Benedict XVI said this when he compared the common roots of Jews and Christians. The German Pope didn’t believe in a capricious God who made the world without knowing what he wanted.
If you want to transform your mind and thinking, you too can follow in Ratzinger’s footsteps, immersing yourself in the writings of great spirits, such as his teacher, St. Augustine. Although, if you prefer, you can begin by reading Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, “God is Love,” which has lost none of its freshness after 17 years. He accompanies us through it even now.