September 2005 - Volume 10, Issue 2
A Good Shepherd
On July 1, I was privileged to accompany Mr. Carl Anderson, who heads the Knights of Columbus, on a private visit to His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI. Although I had met Cardinal Ratzinger on various occasions in the past, this was my first opportunity to greet him as our new Holy Father and to convey in person the prayers and good wishes of our diocesan family of faith as he begins his ministry as Successor to Saint Peter and Vicar of Christ.
From my prior contacts, I was not surprised that Pope Benedict received Mr. Anderson and me so kindly. The Holy Father truly engaged us as we spoke about the various ways the 1.7 million Knights of Columbus around the world wish to support him in his service to the Church. Nor was I surprised that Pope Benedict was accorded such a warm welcome by over a million young people at World Youth Day in Cologne. He endeared himself to them by his friendly, self-effacing, and reverent manner. In his kindness, he did not hesitate to challenge them to embrace the Catholic faith and to practice it vigorously. Nor was it a surprise to read that, while he was on vacation, the Holy Father met informally with about 150 priests. In that 90-minute session, he related to them as a beloved professor might interact with his students.
None of this is new. In the past, when I have attended meetings at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the future pope was not only a genial host but also a good listener. He would solicit the opinion of everyone at the table and then offer a marvelous synthesis of all that had been said, adding his own insights and suggestions. It is clear to me that he was mischaracterized by many segments of the press who painted him as a doctrinaire enforcer of rigid views. It is a blessing that his persona has emerged on the world stage, not for its own sake but for the sake of the Gospel to which Pope Benedict has dedicated his life.
Of course, I would not dare to characterize the Holy Father merely on the basis of a single private audience or the other occasions when I've been with him. But there are some features of his life and ministry that will help us all know, understand, and love our new Holy Father in this still-early stage of his papacy. You can find these in various books that were published shortly after his election. But in the event you haven't read one or more of them, here are a few things to keep in mind.
It is well known that Josef Ratzinger came of age in Nazi Germany. He grew up in a close and deeply Catholic family in Bavaria. As a youth, he could not escape Hitler's pervasive youth movement. He was eventually conscripted in the army but did not see combat. He escaped as soon as he could and for a brief time was an American prisoner of war. Like his predecessor, the future pope became aware, at a very early age, of the danger of any allembracing "ism" - any totalitarian ideology or polity.
Just before the Conclave that elected him pope, he spoke of the "dictatorship of relativism." His choice of words is significant. He knows firsthand of the dangers of a culture that is intolerant of fundamental truths and values. He is aware of the rising tide of intolerance to religious truth in Western Europe and in the United States as well as the situation of the Church in countries dominated by Muslims. In the West, many political leaders no longer take religious truths and moral values seriously. Those who profess and practice their faith are made to feel "different." The peer pressure exerted on young people and on professional people to avoid being outwardly religious is enormous.
It is well known that Pope Benedict is a scholar. Soon after his priestly ordination in 1951, he began in earnest his life of scholarship and teaching. He was a professor of theology in the distinguished faculties at Bonn, Münster, Tübigen, and Regensburg. He was soon recognized as an expert in the writings of Saint Bonaventure, Saint Augustine, and other early and medieval Christian writers. His study of these and other writers prompted his involvement in a theological movement known as ressourcement, which means "a return to the sources" or "fonts" of the Catholic Tradition.
It was this way of thinking, embraced by many of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century, which paved the way for the Second Vatican Council. If you read its documents as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which grew out of the Council and whose production was overseen by Cardinal Ratzinger), you will see that they are harmoniously laced with quotations from the Scriptures, early and medieval Christian writers, previous Councils, the teachings of popes through the centuries, and the reflections of the saints. This is not accidental. The Church strives to address contemporary men and women by reflecting as fully as possible the truth, beauty, coherence, and goodness of the entire Tradition. This is no easy project! That is why, forty years after the conclusion of the Council, we must continually seek to understand its true meaning and application.
Then-Father Ratzinger was deeply involved in the Second Vatican Council. He was a peritus or expert under Cardinal Josef Frings, a very influential voice in the Council. As an upand- coming theologian, Father Ratzinger contributed to and embraced the teachings of the Council. However, he was not swept away by the heady atmosphere that took hold during and right after the Council. He knew, then and now, that the post-modern world was not as receptive to the Gospel as some at the time may have thought. He saw the pitfalls in embracing secularity too readily and taking an overly optimistic view of human nature.
His cautions were not those of a reactionary but a realist who knows the Christian tradition deeply. He realized what has become more and more apparent to all of us - that the authentic renewal of the Church is not accomplished by changing a few externals or by proclaiming slogans, or by substituting ideologies for a thorough knowledge and love of the Tradition.
Pope Paul VI recognized Father Ratzinger's extraordinary gifts when he made him Archbishop of Munich-Freising and a cardinal in 1977. In 1982, Pope John Paul II named him prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Not only in his professorships but also as bishop and prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger continued his scholarly research and writing. More than any other pope in his history, we have access to what he wrote. While his books and articles aren't always easy reading, they are accessible to any serious reader and thinker. He is a careful, painstaking scholar with a poet's touch.
His is a serene theology that helps us both think and pray. Among the books he has written, you might want to read his Introduction to Christianity, written in 1968, and The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, written prior to the Second Vatican Council, a book that helps explain the notion of the Church as a communion of faith and life, a concept central to the Council. I'd also suggest you read Called To Communion: Understanding the Church Today, as well as essays on the Eucharist and the liturgy, including God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life; Feast of Faith, and The Spirit of the Liturgy. You might also want to look at his book-length interviews, The Ratzinger Report and Salt of the Earth. All these volumes are available through Ignatius Press of San Francisco.
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was involved in many tough issues and decisions. Those were often cited in the press, but usually his underlying concerns are not highlighted. For example, he stresses that the Church is not to be understood as an ordinary human organization that operates merely according to secular political categories. It follows that the Church cannot be genuinely understood or reformed exactly in the same way as other organizations might be. Rather, the Church must be seen as a living organism that reflects and participates in the unity of the Trinity. As the Body of Christ, it stands as an open invitation for us and for all to share in the life and love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The pope has also stressed that the Church, despite the failings of her members, remains an essential channel of God's grace and must both guard and proclaim the deposit of faith.
It is too soon to predict the program of his papacy, except to say that we can look for Pope Benedict XVI to teach and proclaim the truth in love. We are truly blessed to have such a splendid Holy Father. He deserves our prayers, understanding, and support.
Might I conclude by suggesting a prayer we can offer for his intentions?
Father of Providence,
look with love on Benedict XVI our Pope,
Your appointed successor to Saint Peter
on whom You built Your Church.
May he be the visible center and foundation
of our unity in faith and love.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God forever and ever.
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