Rome — Pope Benedict suffers a very basic image problem; there is a wide gap between who he is and who he is perceived to be. If he were a candidate in the U.S. elections, someone would be running to get the pope an image consultant. But he is at the Vatican and here, what the world thinks is not a top concern. On the eve of his visit to the U.S., a “road map” to the pope might be useful: the first part a personal portrait of who Joseph Ratzinger is; and the second, one aspect of the pope’s larger vision of the Catholic Church that is often overlooked.
Less than a week after being elected pope, Benedict XVI revealed to a German audience at the Vatican what he had felt that morning in the Sistine Chapel:
When, little by little, the trend of the voting led me to understand that, to say it simply, the axe was going to fall on me, my head began to spin. I was convinced that I had already carried out my life’s work and could look forward to ending my days peacefully. With profound conviction I said to the Lord: Do not do this to me!
At every major step in his rise through the Catholic hierarchy, the pope admits he was reluctant. “I felt called to a life of study,” he says in his memoirs, Milestones, “I never had anything else in mind.”
In the same memoirs, he recalls St. Augustine, who was also called from a life of study to become bishop of Hippo: “He had chosen the life of a scholar, but God had chosen to make him into a ‘draft animal’ — a good, sturdy ox to pull God’s cart in this world. How often did he protest vehemently against all the trifles that continually blocked his path and kept him from the great spiritual and intellectual work he knew to be his deepest calling!”
The pope, then cardinal, called Augustine’s meditation on this predicament, “a portrayal of my own destiny.”
The pope has a little white house in Regensburg, Germany, bought in the hopes of retirement. He had it built in the seventies for himself and his sister Maria. He was teaching at the University of Regensburg; Maria helped him transcribe his writings. His brother, Georg, an important director of music in the same town, came by often. He transferred the graves of his parents to the nearby cemetery.
He describes his years in Regensburg as some of his happiest. He was teaching and surrounded by his family. “We were once again together,” he says, “in our own home.”
No one now lives in the house in Regensburg. His sister Maria has died; the pope’s cat Chico wanders in the garden and is looked after by the neighbors, Rupert and Terese Hofbauer, who also send jars of honey to the pope in the Vatican from the honeycombs in his garden. The calendar in the house is stopped at Friday, January 7, 2005, the last time the Joseph Ratzinger slept there, just a few months before becoming pope.
This frank portrait the pope paints of himself shows Benedict to be a sort of everyman; every man who thought his life might turn out differently.
It is a very different image than the one circulated in the media at the time of his election: that he wanted the job and indeed campaigned for it.
In a post-John Paul II world, no one knows more than Joseph Ratzinger himself that he does not have some of the qualities expected in a pope today, including “rock-star” likeability. He is a professor, not comfortable with the adulation of crowds John Paul II-style.
Benedict is the post-TV pope; the best way to meet him is not through images and sound bites, but through the directness of his talks, which he writes himself. Ironically, given his reputation for being old-fashioned, he is the perfect pope for the Internet age, where his discourses can be read in full by everyone and meditated on in private. It might be said he prefers it this way.
Essentializing with Benedict
“Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world — that let God in.”
So said Cardinal Ratzinger in an interview in the winter of 1995 (Salt of the Earth).
“The Church of tomorrow,” he said “will be a Church of minority.”
Statistics that show a decline in the number of Catholics will not come as a surprise to Pope Benedict, in fact he predicted it.
“When I said that,” he later (in 2000) recounted in God & the World, “I was reproached from all sides for pessimism. And nowadays nothing seems less tolerated than what people call pessimism — and which is often in fact just realism.”
Much of Pope Benedict’s pontificate can be viewed in light of this vision of the future which is already upon us. If the Catholic Church is going to be smaller, the pope thinks, it must be reinforced in its basic beliefs and practices, in order to withstand the onslaught of a secular society and perhaps in some future day once again become a determining force in the world.
It is called essentializing — a word he takes from Romano Guardini, a 20th-century German theologian whom the pope admires.
Essentializing involves a reinforcement of the fundamental teachings about God, salvation, ethics, life. It is “turning our lives toward what is essential, which can then be embodied and represented anew. In this sense, a kind of simplification is important, so that what is truly lasting and fundamental in our teaching, in our faith, can emerge,” the pope said when cardinal.
Essentializing is first a positive act; it organically weeds out what does not belong to it by explaining what it does contain.
So the pope’s first message to the American people, given from Rome in advance of his trip is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule. A most basic precept of Christianity.
His first encyclical was called, simply, “God is Love.”
Similarly, Pope Benedict has spent every Wednesday during the last three years teaching Catholics about the early thinkers and saints of Christianity during his audiences at the Vatican.
Benedict’s decision to make the Tridentine Mass more easily available can also be seen as an example of essentializing, which he says is not about constructing new things (and he uses the example of creating liturgies for a technical world).
The pope sees parallels with early Christianity, “if society in its totality is no longer a Christian environment, just as it was not in the first four or five centuries, the Church herself must form cells in which mutual support and a common journey, and thus the great vital milieu of the church in miniature, can be experienced and put into practice” (Salt of the Earth).
St. Benedict was “essentializing” when in the sixth century he formed small monastic communities at the onset of the Dark Ages. He did not try to convert the barbarians, but by gathering a few men around him and giving them very simple rules on how to live, he protected and nourished a vision of Christianity which became the basis for the growth of Catholicism centuries later and indeed continues to exist today.
When Cardinal Ratzinger was asked about John Paul II’s vision of Christianity he replied that the late pope hoped that this millennium would be one of unification, “that all the catastrophes of our century, all its tears, as the pope says, will be caught up at the end and turned into a new beginning.”
The cardinal then said of John Paul II’s vision, “I do not yet see it approaching.”
It has been said before that the Vatican does not think in the short-term, but in terms of centuries. Pope Benedict, who in nearly every speech makes reference to ancient thinkers, clearly also has the long-term history of the church and the world in mind when he speaks today. If his vision of the near future is pessimistic, or realistic as he likes to say, it is not without hope.
“I never imagined that I could, so to speak, redirect the rudders of history,” he said in an interview as cardinal. “And if our Lord himself ends up on the Cross, one sees that God’s ways do not lead immediately to measurable successes. This, I think, is really very important. The disciples asked him certain question: What’s going on, why aren’t we getting anywhere? And he answered with the parables about the mustard seed, the leaven and the like telling them that statistics is not one of God’s measurements. In spite of that, something essential and crucial happens with the mustard seeds and the leaven, even though you can’t see it now.”
Americans are results-oriented people. We like to have problems solved in quick concrete steps. When the pope comes to America and tells people that prayer, faith, and love of neighbor are the answer to our ills, some may be left unsatisfied. We may not see any changes we had hoped for when he leaves. Yet in the long arc of history, and perhaps even in the nearer future of our own lives, we may see that his visit planted some seeds which bear fruit.
– Delia Gallagher is a Vatican journalist based in Rome. She is the former CNN Faith and Values Correspondent.