Fondly remembering Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who died today at the age of 95, is remembered in the press for...well, resigning, being the first German pope in centuries, and overseeing the rectification of some of the worst Church sexual abuse scandals, which doesn't say much about him.

For those who look a little closer, he is known for opening up for Catholics the traditional style of the Latin Catholic Mass, known as the Tridentine Mass, which has brought in many converts.  And of course, he was known for opposing the radical leftist ideas, such as liberation theology, running rampant through the Church.  When Catholics have had a bellyful of Pope Francis and his nonsensical left-wingery on economics, global warming, capitalism, and other topics he knows nothing about, veering way out of his lane, we could often hear from parishioners who murmured that Pope Benedict was "our real pope."

For me, though, Pope Benedict's passing is sad because he was a lovely man and an intellectual giant.

I went to school at the Jesuit University of San Francisco during my undergraduate years in the 1980s.  Following a guy I liked and always wanting to be around him, as such things go, I enrolled in the St. Ignatius Institute, where he was enrolled, a traditional Jesuit Catholic education program, which, at the time, was run by the brilliant Father Joseph Fessio, S.J.

Father Fessio had been a Ph.D. student under then–Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, and Ratzinger's picture was prominently placed on the walls of all the offices.  We loved that name, "Ratzinger" — it was so sharp and vivid.  The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci once said she did, too.  Ratzinger was our spiritual leader, a prominent German bishop who (as I followed such things in an unsophisticated way) was best friends with Pope John Paul II, before he eventually became Pope Benedict XVI.  That certainly made him credible, and special, to us kids. 

At the university, we would read his intellectual writings at times in the classical Catholic education classes, and loved the traditionalist, no-apologies contact with the eternal values that do not change within these books.  Ratzinger couldn't stand moral relativism, and we knew that he wrote with authority.  Germany became the pilgrimage spot, to make some kind of contact with Cardinal Ratzinger's milieu among our student circles, although for a few of us adventurous types (like me), the hotspot for a pilgrimage was communist Poland.  But Germany drew many, too.

The Catholic writer George Weigel,* explained Benedict's gentle ability to win over even radical critics this way to the New York Times several years ago:

Longtime supporters say they are not surprised that Benedict has engendered such affection. The image of the cold enforcer, they say, was always a caricature.

"I have known this man for a very long time, and what I am seeing, frankly, is the man I have always known," said George Weigel, a biographer of John Paul who is finishing a book on Benedict.

"It is not the pyrotechnic personality of Karol Wojtyla," he added, using the given name of John Paul, who died on April 2. "It's the attractiveness of a man who knows exactly who he is, who, like John Paul II, is a genuine Christian radical, and who can explain the depth of Christian faith in a kind of winsome way."

When Ratzinger became pope in 2005, all of us on the alumni email lists were thrilled.  Father Fessio, based on the interviews he gave in the press (because the press knew who the go-to person was on Ratzinger), was exuberant.  I recall that Lucianne Goldberg gave him the splendid nickname "B-16" and said it was auspicious.  The pope's best friend was to become his successor.

He stayed as pope for eight years, and a period of stability ensued.

Unfortunately, the Vatican was a rat's nest of intrigue and scandal.  The press was hounding the pope over supposed cover-ups of church sex scandals, which he couldn't possibly have been involved in, it was such garbage.  The idea of sex scandals must have been so foreign and horrible to him that he could barely look at it.  As a gentle intellectual and scholar, he couldn't take it; he wasn't a guy who relished political wars and battles, not even faculty lounge wars, particularly with his health failing and the rat's nest whipping up a din.  A practical German of humble demeanor who always called himself "an ordinary Christian," rather than a fancy mystic, he resigned in favor of someone more vigorous who could handle the battling bishops and incipient scandals.  It was understandable.  The dice were tossed for Francis, who became pope instead, and it's been lots of chaos since and very annoying at times.  But Francis, nevertheless, hasn't deviated on important matters of human life in Church doctrine, whether on abortion, marriage, or female priests.  He has held the ship.  While he is up against the rat's nest, too, and the far-left German bishops are a particularly repellent problem, he is doing the best he can with what he is up against.  Francis was to be the compromise among these factions, the dragon-tamer, which hasn't worked out terribly well, but as he has taken advice from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on Church doctrine, he has been good enough.

As for Benedict, it was clear he longed for a more contemplative life, not the rough-and-tumble and positively Jacobean intrigue of Vatican politics.

Cardinal Ratzinger — and Pope Benedict XVI — had so many wonderful qualities.  He was an intellectual and a writer.  His books are beautifully readable.  Like many writers, he liked cats.  As a teenager, he defied the Nazis and went full deserter on Hitler, significant points in his favor. 

My favorite bit of doctrine that he has contributed is on Church music at Mass — that it must always be "majestic."  That put the lid on guitar Masses for a lot of us, and millions and millions owe him a debt of gratitude for that alone, though I am sure some are still going on — which is OK for those who like that style, but the "majestic" call laid down a marker for what the Mass deserves, and what we the worshipers should embrace, which we can all be grateful for.

He passes now, easily remembered for his books and his influence on countless students, but his other roles should not be dismissed, either — as a great pope, as the helpful best friend and adviser to Pope John Paul II, whose influence is enormous, and as adviser to Pope Francis, to help keep him on the straight and narrow.

Pope Benedict XVI was a giant.

Rest in peace.

Image: Marek Kośniowski (Marek.69) via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 3.0.

*Correction: An earlier version of this piece mis-identified the author's last name and relationship, based on a faulty recollection.

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