“I am continually recalling the same truths to you, even though you already know them and firmly hold to them. I am sure it is my duty, as long as I am in this tent, to keep stirring you up with reminders, since I know the time for taking off this tent is coming soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ foretold me. And I shall take great care that after my own departure you will still have a means to recall these things to memory.” (2 Pe 1:12-15)
And stirring us up with reminders, our beloved Pope Benedict XVI certainly has done over the short eight years of his pontificate, through his encyclicals, general audiences, homilies, various addresses and speeches, apostolic exhortations, etc. And, as many a liberal commentator has remarked, he has also and certainly taken great care that after his departure, we would still have a means to recall these things to memory through the person of his successor, by choosing carefully the cardinals who are eligible to vote in the conclave.
The first impression I had of Pope Benedict was that of a poor soul who was unlucky enough to succeed to John Paul II. My mother held Blessed John Paul almost in veneration: he was a beacon for our family as he was certainly for many other people. In particular, he was charismatic, a quality which seemed lacking at first in Pope Benedict who, on the contrary, looked rather reserved. When World Youth Day opened in Cologne a few months after his election, he didn’t seem completely at home with these massive young Catholics’ gatherings. A friend of mine who had attended previous WYD events came back rather disappointed, as she found him rather distant, much unlike Blessed John Paul. For my part, I just thought everybody was simply different. Blessed John Paul was who he was and Pope Benedict had his own personality.
Then came the famous Regensburg speech, which contrary to the impression left by the media, had nothing to do with Islam, but had everything to do with faith and reason. Pope Benedict also emphasized in that speech the importance of religion in intercultural dialogue and warned his audience that if the latter were to be effective, then religion could not be bypassed. This speech was reported at best as a gaffe, at worse as an attack on Islam and a radical policy change at the Vatican in terms of inter religious dialogue.
The Regensburg speech was followed by the opening of the case for the canonization of Pope Pius XII, who had been falsely accused of complicity with the Nazis, in spite of the testimonies of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, former Chief Rabbi of Rome Israel Zolli, who later became a Catholic, or Albert Einstein. Pope Benedict however, was committed to do justice to the man, no matter how this was going to be perceived by the media, and by doing so, he got many Catholics, including myself, interested in learning about the life of this saintly Pope.
When “Summorum Pontificum” came out Pope Benedict was again wrongly accused of imposing the Latin Mass onto the Church while he was in fact freeing those who wished to offer the Mass in the Old Rite to do so without fear of reprisal from their local Bishop. At about the same time, talks started with the breakaway Society of St Pius X with the hope of bringing the Society into full communion with the Church, but the lifting of the excommunication of four Bishops who were consecrated without papal approval in 1988 was overshadowed by the Williamson affair. One could be forgiven at this stage for thinking that Pope Benedict had ruined all previous efforts to improve relations with the Jews.
Pope Benedict’s pontificate has been a long journey of suffering, defamation and calumnies.
“For my part, I made no resistance, neither did I turn away. I offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who tore at my beard; I did not cover my face from insult and spittle. The Lord comes to my help, so that I am untouched by insults. So too, I set my face like flint; I know I shall not be shamed.” (Is 50:5-7)
But his martyrdom of witness, far from going unnoticed, attracted him a lot of sympathy and admiration from people both inside and outside the Church. For instance, one could read in the comment box of French daily newspaper Le Monde online, these words of praise from someone who apparently was not a Catholic:
“I respect this man for keeping calm despite all attempts to drag him into these dirty affairs.”
Perhaps, the dismay of many journalists at the emotion generated by the news of his abdication and the amount of support he subsequently received is in proportion to the amount of efforts they have put into tainting his reputation. However, Pope Benedict was not going to be silenced by media bullies, but would instead stand by the truth at any cost, regardless of whose feeling got hurt, and he would pursue whatever was in the best interest of the Church, never mind how this was going to be perceived both inside and outside the Church.
Pope Benedict has been a role model and has emboldened many Catholics, in particular young Catholics, including myself, to defend the Faith. He has also provided us with many opportunities to draw closer to it, by calling a Year of St Paul, the great missionnary who became my favourite saint for this very reason, followed by a Year of the Priesthood, which was sadly overshadowed by the clerical sex-abuse scandal. He then published YouCat, the Youth Catechism to address widespread ignorance of the Faith among young Catholics and finally called this Year of Faith, which opened in October last year and runs through to November, as another opportunity to deepen our knowledge of the Catholic Faith and of the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
Far from being out of touch with a society which had moved on from Christianity, Pope Benedict was very much in it, and was able to detect the main social trends and track them all the way back to their philosophical roots. I only understood what he meant by his famous expression ” the dictatorship of relativism”, meaning the fierce intolerance of today’s society towards those who uphold objective morality, when I became involved in the pro-life movement. He attacked the main ideologies of our time in their very foundations, setting the wheel in motion for their eventual collapse. I am convinced that when History looks back on his short pontificate, we will see more clearly the influence he has had on the course of events.
“Happy are you when people accuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” (Mt 5:11-12)
We will miss you Papa. Thank you for leading the Church safely through the dangerous paths of our world.