Habemus Papam

May 10 2005 | by

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AFTER THE GREAT Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord. With these words Joseph Alois Ratzinger greeted the cheering crowds from the balcony of the Basilica of Saint Peter. It was late afternoon, 6:48 pm, on April 19, an hour after his election as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. However conventional these words may appear, they do, in fact, give us a true picture of the life of this new pope: Benedict XVI. This gentle and kingly 78-years-old man has been a hard and diligent worker all his life. His literary output is extraordinary; he has been at the forefront of the intellectual life for the past 50 years, even though the general public is not yet aware of this because Joseph Ratzinger is a reserved and humble man, who would rather keep out of the limelight.

Bavarian boy

Joseph Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927 at Markt am Inn in Germany, into a family of Bavarian farmers. His father, Joseph Sr., was a police officer, and his mother, Maria Riger, tended the family and also worked as a barmaid.
The Ratzingers were a peaceful, closely knit family of deep religious faith. They had three children: two boys and a girl, Maria, who is now deceased. All three were inquisitive and studious. As they were not well-off, it was impossible to provide for the education of all three. So Joseph Sr. would often impart the education himself, especially his passion for literature.
Joseph Jr. was the last born. His childhood was serene and joyful, even though his health was frail. Joseph was especially attracted by Georg, his elder brother, who was 3 years older than him. They shared a great love for music. Georg, who is now 81, became a talented musician, composer, organist and orchestra director. For 30 years, until 1994, he was Master of the Chapel of the Dome of Regensburg.
Joseph, however, only took music up as a hobby. He was especially fond of Mozart and Beethoven. He also became an accomplished pianist, a passion he still cultivates. The young man also loved reading on practically any subject, with a preference, however, for early 20th century French Catholic authors like Paul Claudel, George Bernanos and Francois Mauriac.
In 1943 Joseph Jr., who was then 16 and already studying in a religious seminar, was drafted into the Wehrmacht, Hitler's army. His brother was already in the army. Despite the fact that no-one in the family was a follower of Nazism, it was not possible for the two young men to avoid being drafted, because refusal or desertion meant death by firing squad. Joseph was incorporated into the flak, the anti-aircraft corps.
The war years, with their heavy store of suffering and destruction, made a deep impression on the young man, and fostered his religious calling and convictions. After the war, therefore, they both decided to become priests, and entered the Catholic seminary in Freising, which was connected to the University in Munich in Germany. Joseph now began in earnest to study philosophy and theology. He also busied himself with biblical exegesis, Church history and anthropology. The expanse of his intellectual pursuits was extraordinary.
On June 29, 1951, the two brothers were ordained by Cardinal Faulhaber of Munich. His dissertation (1953) was on Saint Augustine, entitled The People and the House of God in Augustine's Doctrine of the Church, and his Habilitationsschrift (a dissertation which serves as qualification for a professorship) was on Saint Bonaventure. It was completed in 1957, and he subsequently became a professor at the Freising seminary in 1958.
Ratzinger then became professor at the University of Bonn from 1959 until 1963, when he moved to the University of Münster. At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Ratzinger served as a consultor ( a theological consultant) to Josef Cardinal Frings of Cologne, Germany. He has continued to defend the teachings of Vatican II, including Nostra Aetate, the document on respect of other religions and the declaration of the right to religious freedom. He was viewed during the time of the Council as a reformer. In fact, some of the Fathers at the Council referred to him as a rebel, which, in a sense, was true. He belonged to a group of young theologians called 'Konzilteenager' (tennagers of the Council). This group was calling for a reform of the liturgy and to changes in the status quo of the Church. In 1964 he was one of the founders of Concilium, one of the most radical of Catholic magazines because of its 'scientific' approach.

Turning point

The young priest, however, was becoming aware that his friends were setting out into increasingly unorthodox paths and, much to their dismay, eventually turned his back on them. The Konzilteenager, disappointed, accused him of 'betraying' his ideals in exchange for a career through the ranks of the Church's hierarchy. But Ratzinger replied that he had always remained true to his ideals, and that he perceived increasing intellectual and theological incoherence in his former friends. One of these is the renowned theologian Hans Kung, who has became one of his bitterest critics in the field of theology.
When the Second Vatican Council ended, Ratzinger returned to Germany, and continued his university career. He published a number of noteworthy books which continue to be reprinted, such as Introduction to Christianity, which has since became a standard text-book for generations of novices. At the end of the 1960s he became professor of Dogmatic Theology and of the History of Dogma at the University of Regensburg, and Vice-President of the same university.
Teaching and study were his great passions until, in 1977, Pope Paul VI intervened suddenly in his life. In March of that year Ratzinger was named archbishop of Munich and Freising. On accepting the title, he took as his episcopal motto Cooperatores Veritatis, (co-workers of the Truth), from 3 John 8. Then, in the consistory of June 1977, the pope also created and proclaimed him Cardinal. He was then 50 years old, and the theologian-archbishop plunged headlong into his new role as pastor of souls. But even this activity was not to last long.
On November 25, 1981, the new pope, John Paul II, named Ratzinger Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a department which was formerly known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition, and had been renamed in 1908 by Pope Pius X. He was also nominated President of the Biblical Commission, and of the Pontifical International Theological Commission.
This promotion as head of the ex-Holy Office, ill-famed for being a sort of continuation of the 'inquisition', aroused great surprise because Ratzinger was still thought of as being a 'progressive'. Indeed, many were hoping that his leadership would bring winds of change into the Church. These expectations, however, were disappointed. He soon became known as Cardinal No. He said no to homosexuality, no to women-priests, no to married-priests, no to Holy Communion for the divorced, no to Communism, but also no to savage Capitalism.
For 24 years Cardinal Ratzinger was a vigil and inflexible defender of orthodoxy. Even though Ratzinger asked Pope John Paul on a number of occasions to be relieved of his duties as Prefect, and to be allowed to go back to teaching, the former pope never gave in to his requests. He had become one of Pope Wojtyla's most trusted and reliable aids. In his book, Get Up, Let Us Be Going , John Paul refers to him as my trusted friend, an expression which Wojtyla never used for anyone else. When the great Polish pope left us, all the cardinals knew that perhaps the only man capable of replacing him was that timid and reserved Prefect, who was actually one of the foundation stones of John Paul's pontificate.
The media are now overflowing with information on the new pope, but who is Pope Ratzinger really? What is he like in his private life?
This is no easy question to answer, as Ratzinger remains a reserved man. However, we have contacted the celebrated Catholic writer Vittorio Messori, who has been a friend of the newly-elected pope for over 20 years.
Ratzinger is an outstanding man, Messori told this journalist recently. The enthusiasm for his election to Peter's throne was still clearly discernible in his voice.
His personality is markedly different from that of John Paul II. However, I feel sure that his pontificate will leave its mark on the Church. I first met Ratzinger in 1984 for an interview that became a best-seller, The Ratzinger Report [see article on pg. 32. of the April 2004 issue of our magazine]. That interview lasted several days, and on that occasion I was able to know him well. I also met him on many other occasions. Ratzinger is a very sweet but reserved person, almost to the point of timidity. However, he is a man of incredible charisma.

Dr. Messori, do you think Benedict XVI will be a progressive or a conservative pope?
He will certainly be a pope who, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will do his best to solve the world's problems by always keeping Truth and the salvation of men as a priority.

For 24 years, in his capacity as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was the watchdog of orthodoxy, and many fear that he will be unsympathetic to any amendments within the Church.
The intolerance and strictness of which he is accused of are really only the outcome of prejudice. These accusations have been fabricated and diffused by some who have a different idea of the Church and its role. When I wrote The Ratzinger Report back in 1984, he was already being targeted for his 'uncompromising' stance. He was called 'The Grand Inquisitor', because he was the head of that Congregation which descends directly from the Holy Office. Also, being German, he was mockingly called the Panzer Cardinal. They were saying that he was a fanatic of orthodoxy; that he was cold, unapproachable, and aloof from the real problems of the world; that he was always ready to pass judgment, and that he was out to curtail freedom.
To my surprise, during the interview I received a totally different picture: I found him sympathetic, patient, democratic, with an open mind and always willing to discuss any matter I put to him. In fact, an unprejudiced look at his work during those 24 years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reveals that he never actually condemned anyone, but only issued reprimands, corrections and requests for clarifications. We must not forget that the Church is the 'guardian' of Revealed Truth, and that She is therefore called upon to be watchful, and to prevent errors from creeping in unawares.

What is Ratzinger like in his private life?
He is a very simple man. He is neat and orderly. He never talks about himself. Her rises very early in the morning. He is always working and reads a lot. He eats little and does not drink any alcoholic beverage, including wine. He sometimes drinks lemonade and, occasionally, a beer. He normally drinks water.
When I was writing The Ratzinger Report , I lived with him for a number of days, from morning to evening. Sometimes we even worked after dinner. It was August and he was vacationing in Brixen, on the Italian Alps near the Austrian border. It was from there that he contacted me, and he asked me to reach him there. He was lodging in the old Catholic seminary of that city. In other words, he was spending his vacation in a very poorly furnished building, which contained only the essential services and comforts. I learned that his vacations were always spent that way. Two weeks of rest in such a Spartan setting: the great cardinal always spent his vacations as one of the poorest of priests.

Does he have any hobbies?
He loves classical music, and practices on his piano every day. He loves nature and always spends his summer vacations up in the Alps. He loves to hike along the green forests. Sometimes his excursions last from early morning to evening, and he leaves with just two or three sandwiches in his rucksack. He then spends the whole day in silence, in communion with nature and, through nature, with God.

Is he a man of deep prayer?
One impression I got of him is that he is continuously in touch with God. You can glean it, for example, from his bearing: he always sits straight, and is calm, self-possessed and joyful. He is always active, but laid back at the same time. This proximity with God confers a certain power and dignity to his look and his voice. All those who meet him are charmed by his presence. My wife can testify to it. When I returned after the days of that interview, I said to her, I did not meet a great theologian or a great cardinal, I met a saint.

If Ratzinger is such a charming person, where does his reputation of being cold, unapproachable and uncompromising come from?
As I just said, it is all made up. It has all been invented by some of those who have a different idea of the Church and its role. Ratzinger's theology is crystal clear. For him, studying theology is like praying. It is fascinating to study his thinking. It's impossible not to be affected by his speeches. His God is that of the Gospels.
The Ratzinger Report was meant as the Church's official answer to some of the misunderstandings that had crept in since Vatican II. The Church was in a great state of confusion at the time. It was for this reason that the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had accepted to be interviewed by a journalist for the first time in history. The idea was to reach as wide a public as possible, and thus transmit the Church's thinking on some fundamental issues, and in this way set bounds to some of the errors of interpretation of the Vatican II documents. That book is, in reality, merely an exposition of basic Christian doctrine. It became an immediate best-seller, and was translated into 20 languages. However, it also provoked violent reactions against Cardinal Ratzinger, and also against myself. I was accused of having interviewed the 'Grand Inquisitor' without ever daring to contradict him. We were both physically threatened.

Do you think he will be a pope of dialogue?
He certainly will. But of dialogue in the sense of discussion, of constructive conversation in the common search for truth, not a dialogue which merely manifests a yielding attitude so as not to hurt others. God is Truth, and he is in the service of Truth. But he will also be a fighting pope. I have no doubts about this. He has already given ample proof of his combative nature in his homilies and sermons. So I think that we will see a very lively pontificate.

How will he relate to the young?
He loves young people. Like John Paul, he believes they are 'the hope of the future'. But his relationship with them will be entirely different from that of his predecessor, because Benedict XVI is simply a different type of man: he is less outgoing and talkative; one could say that he is almost introverted. I feel sure, however, that he will be much loved by the young. They will sense his inner spirituality and warmth, his intellectual eminence and, above all, his authentic love, and when you have true love everything else is superfluous. People recognise true love, and it conquers all.

Do you think he was expecting it?
He certainly wasn't. He knew that many cardinals wanted him on Peter's throne, but he felt he was too old for such a demanding task. The last time I met him we had a long discussion on two very important books he was working on. He was really looking forward to the idea of leaving his position as Prefect and to returning to Bavaria to finish writing his books.

Would John Paul have wanted him as his successor?
I think so. We know that Ratzinger asked John Paul five times to be relieved of his position as Prefect, but the former pope always refused to let him go. Pope Wojtyla just couldn't do without him.

During John Paul's funeral many people were shouting santo subito, which means, saint at once. Do you think Benedict XVI will push for his beatification?
I believe that within one or two years at the most, this present pope will proclaim John Paul II a saint.

Updated on October 06 2016