It is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most. – G.K. Chesterton
It has been nearly five years since Pope Francis began steering the Barque of St. Peter. During that time, we have witnessed an exuberant shepherd paying for his own hotel bill, leaning in bodily to shake hands with delirious crowds, engaging in intellectual exchanges with atheist newspaper editors and cold-calling just about anybody. This papacy has been anything but conventional.
But today, I happened across a photograph of an older, increasingly frail Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. And I couldn’t help but smile. Shy and soft-spoken with an enviable shock of white hair, this is the Pope under whom I became a Catholic in 2010.
Benedict XVI was supposed to be the “caretaker Pope.” His age and background as a deeply cerebral theologian could lead the uninitiated to think that, indeed, that’s all Benedict was: a caretaker. But the eight years between the courageous lion of St. John Paul II and the loving lamb of Francis reveal Benedict XVI to be exactly what most of believe he will be named: a Doctor of the Church.
To explore Benedict XVI is to love him. Whether it is in his deeply insightful “September Addresses” given in London, Paris, Berlin or Regensburg, or his penetrating conclave homily where he diagnosed the impending “dictatorship of relativism”, you will consistently learn from Benedict XVI on theological issues that touch our every day lives. And if you take the time to read his quartet of book-length interviews with Peter Seewald (Salt of the Earth, God and the World, Light of the World, Last Testament), you find not only a strikingly clear and inspired thinker, but also a man of deep warmth and humanity. His works such as Spirit of the Liturgy, Introduction to Christianity, the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, encyclicals (God is Love, Saved in Hope, Charity in Truth) are exquisite in their faith and profound in their wisdom. And a favorite of mine which I read (a few years ago) during Holy Week, Behold the Pierced One, revealed a Benedict XVI who spoke so intimately of a personal friendship with Christ that the unfamiliar may judge him as hailing from a more Evangelical tradition.
Homilies and Wednesday audiences and speeches and interviews are available (for free!) on the Vatican’s website or for a pittance online. Personally, Benedict XVI knew how to grant me a love of mystery when my faith was becoming too calculating, and instill a love of reason when my faith was becoming too ambiguous.
Oh, I know.
There will be detractors who still consider Benedict XVI God’s Rottweiler or the Panzer Pope. There are those who will think that his forced conscription into the Hitler Youth damn him as an unrepentant Nazi, even though his family flatly opposed Hitler and Joseph Ratzinger and his brother endured persecution as young men aspiring to become Catholic priests. But, fundamentally, these detractors are not serious and have what Flannery O’Connor would call “a vested interest in disbelief”.
To those who have passed judgement without giving Benedict XVI a fair chance, I would paraphrase G.K. Chesterton saying “Pope Benedict XVI has not been tried and found wanting; he has been found difficult and left untried.”
I would again borrow from Chesterton and offer that “it is impossible to be just to Pope Benedict XVI because the moment a man ceases to pull against him he feels a tug towards him. The moment he ceases to shout him down he begins to listen to him with pleasure. The moment he tries to be fair to the Pope he begins to be fond of him.”
How can I say this? Well, I should know. After years of being a Protestant who dismissed the Church and disdained the papacy, I was shocked by the beauty, clarity and wisdom offered by this old priest from Bavaria. The moment I tried to be fair to him, I began to be fond of him. And my fondness has never ceased.
To be sure, Pope Francis is our Pope. And I love him for it.
But Pope Benedict XVI? He will always be my Pope – the Pope who brought me into the Church.
May God watch over both of our shepherds.
Photo credit: Pixabay