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John Jay HughesFebruary 06, 2006

Visiting Rome in early 1959, while still an Anglican priest, I asked a learned Benedictine from Belgium who was prior of the monastery where I was staying, whether he had attended the funeral of Pope Pius XII six months earlier. His reply, an apt comment on the style of papal liturgies of that era: “I never attend such ceremonies. It is time wasted, and not edifying.” What a change we have witnessed since then in the institution once proud to boast that “the church never changes.” The hundreds of thousands who attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II in April of last year and the millions more who witnessed it on television found it deeply edifying—and time well spent. In their new books, both Hans-Joachim Fischer and George Weigel give full accounts of the funeral, including Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily. Weigel gives the text in full—fittingly so, for it was this above all that got Cardinal Ratzinger his present job.

That is an oversimplification, of course. Fischer and Weigel, as well as Laurence Paul Hemming, show that during Ratzinger’s 23 years as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, while he was acquiring the media image of “the Panzer Cardinal” and “God’s Rottweiler,” he was steadily building a reputation among the world episcopate as a bishop of deep faith and personal modesty, a man of warmth, gentleness and unaffected charm—and above all, a good listener. At John Paul’s death no other cardinal was so well known by his peers, or knew them so well, as Joseph Ratzinger. Over the years they had all visited him in his office at the C.D.F.

The only one of the four authors reviewed here to accept the media caricature of Ratzinger is Michael S. Rose. He is the author of previous books alleging a homosexual takeover of American seminaries, and castigating “reformists of the Catholic Left” for their iconoclastic assaults on the mostly second- and third-rate neogothic piles erected by the sacrifices of poor believers in the heyday of the immigrant church. In Benedict XVI: The Man Who Was Ratzinger, Rose not only accepts the media caricature of his subject, he glories in it. He is confident that Pope Benedict will put to flight once and for all those pesky “reformists” who, as the shadows of John Paul II’s papacy lengthened, called with increasing urgency for a new pope who would reverse John Paul’s controversial moral stands; abolish priestly celibacy; permit the ordination of women, gays and lesbians; accept abortion and euthanasia; and promote New Age spirituality.

The rot set in, he tells us, under Pope Paul VI, who “revolutionized the hierarchy through the elevation of out-and-out renegades to the episcopacy.” It continued, sad to say, under John Paul II, because of his neglect of administration. Rose’s indictment may contain elements of truth. But the overall effect is that of a distorted reflection in a fun-house mirror. Sections of the book read like an extended rant, well calculated to quicken the pulse of readers who have had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the postconciliar church.

Hemming, dean of research at Heythrop College in the University of London and a transitional deacon for the Archdiocese of Westminster, shares many of Rose’s tastes, in particular his regret over the loss of the Latin liturgy. His account of Joseph Ratzinger’s personality and thought, however, is a model of fairness and balance. In Benedict XVI: Fellow Worker for the Truth, he points out, correctly, that with regard to Vatican II Ratzinger is not the conservative people like Rose take him to be, but a radical. Benedict XVI views the council as a return to the church’s roots in Scripture and tradition in its 2,000-year fullness. Those who rejoiced at Ratzinger’s election because they had accepted the media caricature, Hemming writes, are bound for disappointment. Pope Benedict sees the church’s role not as that of a policeman, but of a doctor dispensing medicine for sin and its effects. He is not afraid to dispute issues of the most serious kind, and is unafraid too of disagreement. “Above all this will be a papacy of dialogue,” Hemming concludes.

Weigel and Fischer agree. The latter, a resigned priest who remains devoted to the church, studied philosophy and theology at Rome’s Gregorian University. He first met Joseph Ratzinger in 1976, when the latter was teaching in Regensburg. Fischer, a longtime journalist for Germany’s leading newspaper, preceded Ratzinger to Rome. His friendship with the man who is now pope speaks highly for both men. Fischer’s Pope Benedict XVI: A Personal Portrait emphasizes Benedict’s joy in life and in a religious faith in which, from childhood, he has always felt completely at home. Thanks to his early years, Fischer writes, the new pope is a “positive” man. He can remain tranquil in the face of critics, because he sees more strongly than they do “the small and happy beauties of life.” No populist, Benedict will be more engaged than was John Paul II in church governance (having experienced at first hand the consequences of his predecessor’s neglect of this area). But the curial cardinals know he will not interfere in their offices or areas of competence.

Immediately after the conclave, Fischer writes, the cardinals’ tongues were loosened—not about the balloting, but about the reasons for their choice. While they admired John Paul’s firmness, many acknowledged that it could seem like “excessive rigidity, even an old man’s obstinacy.” The cardinals wanted a successor equally firm in doctrine, but able to communicate with charm and friendliness (qualities the cardinals had personally experienced both during their visits to the C.D.F. over the years, and in the fortnight before the conclave): “not someone like John Paul who, as Vatican insiders liked to put it, used his naked fists to punch holes in any walls in front of him.” A cardinal from the South told Fischer that they had been looking for “a pope who would hand back to God the responsibility for the world, and to Jesus, the founder of Christianity, the responsibility for the Church.”

The rightness of the cardinals’ choice was confirmed by Benedict’s obvious comfort with a role he had never sought and clearly dreaded. Already by the conclusion of his inaugural Mass five days after his election, Benedict “seemed to have been pope forever.” Fischer’s book is an engaging read. Unfortunately the translation is sometimes awkward (papal cassocks that do not fit are “unfittingly made”), sometimes simply wrong (“libertine” where what Fischer means is “libertarian”).

George Weigel devotes the first 74 pages of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church to a review of the pontificate just ended, a task for which he is eminently qualified as author of his magisterial if somewhat hagiographical biography of John Paul II. The real question in the cardinals’ minds prior to the conclave, Weigel writes, was not Ratzinger’s media image (which he rightly dismisses), but his capacity for governance. Trying to dampen his chances of election, Ratzinger himself told people during the interregnum that he was no administrator. Cardinals concerned on this score took comfort, however, in the belief that a man so well aware of his limitations would, as pope, “get himself the help he needed.”

Both Weigel and Hemming emphasize Benedict’s affinity for Augustine rather than Aquinas. He is the first non-Thomist for centuries to have headed the church’s central doctrinal office. It is not only that Augustine was the topic of Joseph Ratzinger’s doctoral dissertation (“Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church as People and House of God”). Augustine lived in a world in which the glue that had held society together for centuries was coming apart, and the shape of what was to come was not discernible—a world very much like our own. If there is a strong element of pessimism in Augustine’s thought (as in that of his papal disciple today), it is relieved by soaring optimism rooted in unshakable faith in the God who (as we read in the last book of the Bible) “makes all things new.”

The most enjoyable part of Weigel’s book is his diary of the preconclave period. For those who were not there, he brings alive the excitement of swirling rumors, hopes and fears—and the humor. The Latin American cardinals, he hears, do not want a return to Italian “normality” in the Vatican, in which some curial cardinals treat Latin Americans as colonials and cardinals from the developing world with contempt. Cardinals Renato Martino and Angelo Sodano have e-mailed lengthy curricula vitae to journalists, the latter prior to John Paul’s funeral. Luigi Accattoli, the leading Italian Vaticanologist, “has some kind of mole inside the General Congregation of cardinals.” (Was Weigel envious?) Two days before the conclave London’s Sunday Times “disgraces itself with a heavy-breathing front-page story about Joseph Ratzinger, Hitler Youth.” Freed by the prospect of comfortable digs and a good kitchen in the Domus Sanctae Marthae from their predecessors’ dread of bunk beds and chamber pots, none of the cardinals were running out at the last minute for a final decent meal.

Two details remain to be considered: the new style of pallium worn by Pope Benedict, and his choice of a name. Fischer gives the dimensions of the pallium, of a size and shape not seen for a millennium, without mentioning its symbolism. It is a visible reminder of something Ratzinger has been saying for years: reunion between Constantinople and Rome would not require acceptance of anything beyond the common faith of East and West in the first millennium. An even clearer symbol is the replacement of the tiara by a bishop’s miter in Benedict’s coat of arms.

Fischer discloses that on a walk with Ratzinger before the conclave, the cardinal said he hoped the next pope would call himself Benedict. This would signal a desire “to go behind the Johns and Pauls and Piuses of recent decades to take up the tradition of the past and continue it into the future.”

It was this reasoning that caused me to start predicting several years ago that John Paul’s successor would call himself Benedict. Never for a moment, however, did I dream he would be my old teacher, Joseph Ratzinger. George Weigel discloses that this honor—and an honor it is, for few dared to predict Ratzinger before John Paul’s death—belongs to a Philadelphia priest and former staff member of the C.D.F. who died in May 2004, Msgr. Thomas Herron. He started telling friends in 2002 that his old boss at the C.D.F. would be the next pope.

Finally, a revealing anecdote reported by an eyewitness deserves to be recorded. The day after Benedict’s election, NBC television broadcast interviews with two men in Rome with contrasting views of the new pope. The Rev. Andrew Greeley, who made no secret that Ratzinger was not his candidate, spoke generously about Benedict. As he descended from the rooftop from which the interview was broadcast, he encountered George Weigel, about to go up to give his own views. Congratulating Greeley for his warm remarks, Weigel received the reply: “I’m trying to be a good loser.” To which Weigel responded: “I’m trying to be a good winner.”

Is it going too far to see in this brief exchange an echo of the graciousness of the new pope himself?

Pope Benedict XVI

The Man Who Was Ratzinger
By Michael S. Rose
Spence. 183p $22.95
ISBN 1890626635

Benedict XVI

Fellow Worker for the Truth
An Introduction to His Life and Thought

By Laurence Paul Hemming
Burns & Oates/Continuum. 183p $16.95
ISBN 0860124096

Pope Benedict XVI

A Personal Portrait
By Hans-Joachim Fischer
Crossroad. 213p $19.95
ISBN 0824523725

God’s Choice

Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church
By George Weigel
HarperCollins. 296p $26.95
ISBN 0066213312

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