Pope Benedict XVI – Joseph Ratzinger, the theologian Pope. When one recalls the incomparable role of great theological minds who appeared almost out of nowhere to lead the Church during Vatican Council II and its aftermath, Benedict, the humble scholar, will always have a place alongside Romano Guardini, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, Karol Wojtyla, and, of course, Hans Urs von Balthasar (whose greatest work postdated the Council). It is as if these towering men were deliberately called and assembled by the Lord, somewhat after the fashion of artists like Michelangelo, Raphael and Bramante; or Bach, Beethoven and Mozart – each group concentrating on a centuries-altering task.
Joseph Ratzinger’s way of doing theology always reflected fresh exhilarating approaches. Guardini’s inspiration and expressions can be detected there, of course. Also, the probings of the great liturgical scholar, Joseph Jungmann. Moreover, Joseph Ratzinger’s most consulted exegetes write from the Germanic schools of thought, as his three recent books about Jesus of Nazareth indicate. And his every sentence is precisely crafted; no pages can be ignored or passed over thoughtlessly.
If Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, was the supreme homilist during his pontificate (as indeed he was), Benedict assumed his preaching mantle from the very beginning of his own pontificate. Each Pope’s style was different, of course. But John Paul could command the silence of a congregation of five million by his very presence, (e.g., at Manila) while Benedict’s carefully polished rhetoric will be studied for decades in seminary homiletics classes.
We shall miss Pope Benedict; just seeing or hearing him was a reminder that our lasting citizenship is not of this world. Blessed John XXIII seemed to have the same effect. John Paul II, clearly a mystic, did likewise.
I have repeatedly tried to make the point that every Roman Pontiff in my own time was extraordinary in his own way, and that the 20th and 21st centuries have been abundantly blessed by Peter’s successors. As a boy I knew about Pius XI, and how he established the Solemnity of Christ the King after witnessing the confusion of so many youths in the Bolshevik Revolution. (I editorialized on his death in 1939 in a newspaper I edited then, at age eleven.) Pius XII was Pope when I was ordained to the priesthood in 1953; he was a stellar intellect and a careful writer. Good Pope John was a "perfect fit" for his times, and the kind of a leader who radiated goodness as well as humility. Paul VI, whose reputation among those who worked for or under him was overwhelmingly positive, implemented Vatican Council II in a way few thought might be possible during a single pontificate.
Which brings us back to John Paul the Great and theologian Pope Benedict. (For the record, we hardly got to know the first John Paul, except to learn anew that true religious experience entails divine kindness; a fatherly smile can constitute a powerful sermon.)
As we recall the pontificate of Joseph Ratzinger, having advanced so far with his help, we open our minds and hearts to a new Holy Father, who undoubtedly is certain to shepherd us farther ahead, perhaps on secure paths novel for our times, in our ongoing pilgrimage of faith. We pray for him, and we wish him the very best, not only for the Church, but for all persons of good will. And we hope that he, like his great predecessors in the Petrine Ministry, can guide us further toward embracing, as the Scriptures and Tradition lead us in life’s pilgrimage within Christ’s Church.
We thank the Lord again for Pope Benedict, as well as for those who have preceded him in Peter’s Chair this brief lifetime. And we pray now for his successor, Pope Francis, to whom we pledge reverence and obedience.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.