The Holy Father's Hidden Heroism
“I only wish I had more to give,” an elderly Jesuit said at a community meeting a few days before he left for the infirmary. One can imagine Pope Benedict having the same sentiments during his last days in office. Joseph Ratzinger’s time as the Holy Father has come to an end; he is utterly spent. Yet he will always be heroic to me. I do not say this is in a saccharine manner, nor do I expect that everyone have the same impression. Few would have guessed that the little old man (I mean that with all respect and affection) elected eight years ago would live up to such a claim. He surely did not either, seeming to choose deliberately the name of a pope who had already faded into history but who had done what he could for peace in the last century. Upon assuming Peter’s chair, Pope Benedict XVI told us that we as God’s people would have to accept what Joseph Ratzinger knew he was all along: “a simple, humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.” At the announcement of his stepping down, he requested “pardon” for his “defects.”
Our popular culture reverberates with an expressed desire for the heroic, as evidenced by the endless string of messianic politicians, glorified athletes and blockbusters featuring superheroes. A superhero Pope Benedict was not, for such do not exist. However, he relentlessly pointed to the real Messiah. In his fidelity, Pope Benedict possessed the essence of Christian heroism: humble, loving sacrifice in the service of Jesus Christ and His people. Whether as a priest, professor, peritus, protector of Christian doctrine or pope, Ratzinger’s learned ministry was marked with magnanimity and desire for what St. Ignatius called the magis, “the more” that is conducive to God’s will. A man known for dialogue and goodwill throughout his life, he showed that these are not soft or flabby qualities but rather strong virtues. They empowered him to contend against what he named “the dictatorship of relativism,” while he spoke with such credibility that a figure like Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom said that Benedict had caused his country to “sit up and think.”
As we review his life, these virtues were not simply the grace given for the office. They were hard-won and lived for decades before he became pope. As a scholar, Joseph Ratzinger was known for patience, understanding, and openness. In a gesture of a longtime friendship, he promptly invited his theological challenger Hans Küng to the Vatican. He called the Society of Jesus to the “frontiers” and affirmed to the Jesuits assembled at the 35th General Congregation on February 21, 2008: “the Church needs you, relies on you and continues to turn to you with trust, particularly to reach those physical and spiritual places which others do not reach or have difficulty reaching.” As I have replied to some who have denigrated the Jesuits as unfaithful, “Well, the Pope at least believes in us!”
Ratzinger’s life was spent in pursuing and articulating the truth in all of its nuances. He dared to do what no other pope has ever done, letting himself be interviewed for the length of a book in Light of the World. After news of his candor broke, I recall a friend of mine who remarked on the “idiocy” of him commenting on condoms. The complicated ethical assessment as pope was congruent with who he was as a young professor, a man unafraid to speak the truth with love. Pope Benedict simply smiled when someone informed him that people would run roughshod with his remarks. A hero has a certain self-possession that does not allow the whims or ignorance of others to get the best of him. As one of my mentors has reminded me, in all of Ratzinger’s life there is practically no one who can say that he personally “lashed out” at them. With aplomb akin to “good Pope John,” he has guided the church with wisdom and sweetness.
Ratzinger could have had reason to be prideful since (as St. Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 8:1) “knowledge puffs up,” but instead his life testifies to the reality that “love builds up.” Knowledge is power, both of which he possessed abundantly. He showed the heroic possibilities of power directed toward the good of the church. His meetings with abuse victims in various countries were particularly moving. One victim present at such a gathering in Malta reported the Pope “wept” there with them.
Ratzinger’s relinquishment of the Petrine office is the consummation of his vocation as “servant of the servants of God.” It seems Pope Benedict’s baptismal name was aptly chosen. Joseph, the universal Protector of the Church, was a heroic figure entrusted with the Blessed Mother and God’s own Son. Yet Joseph’s heroism was hidden in history; his was a life of diminishment to the extent that Scripture does not even tell us what became of him.
In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius sought to help people answer the “Call of the King,” to live under “the Standard of Christ” even to the point of rejection and to follow God’s Spirit that sends us to do everything for God’s greater glory. We would do well to contemplate the life of Joseph Ratzinger as we pray for him in his remaining life of prayer and penance. His was not the cool release of power, the act of a noble politician like the Roman dictator Cincinnatus. It is what Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles calls “the act of a saint.” Joseph Ratzinger is proceeding in obedience to the One who was nailed to a tree, accepting with and in Him a strange humiliation. Surely he recalls that the first Bishop of Rome was publicly hung upside-down. Many have suggested that Pope Benedict’s was a failed mission. The circumstances of his time in the papacy were not ideal; many goals eluded him. Yet let us remember another Man who at the end of his life was judged a failure. And no servant is greater than his Master.