This Sunday, on the occasion of the death of Pope Benedict, the German novelist Martin Mosebach wrote a beautiful reflection in Die Welt. He identifies a key fact which permits us to understand a thread that united Joseph Ratzinger with the faith he professed: ‘On April 16, 1783, the illiterate and holy vagabond Benoît-Joseph Labre died in Rome, much loved by the people of the city. He had wandered the length and breadth of Europe as a pilgrim and had rarely slept in a bed. That same date, the feast day of St Benoît-Joseph, saw the birth of Ratzinger in Marktl am Inn in 1927. He received the name of the saint of the day according to ancient custom. As pope, Ratzinger chose to be called Benedict, assuming the first name of his patron saint. The most important theologian to sit on the papal throne for centuries deliberately put himself under the protection of a saint for whom theology did not matter, only worship.’
Ratzinger’s double name — Joseph, at birth, Benedict, as pope — refers, then, to an unlettered saint, a poor man of God who reminds us of the Russian yurodivy, those extravagant ‘fools for Christ’ who refused to abide by the rules of this world in order, thereby, to expose the sins of humanity.
Joseph Ratzinger did not break any laws — he was much too German for that. However, he quickly understood that, in a clearly post-Christian society, the light of the Church naturally orients itself (eschatologically, one might say) towards the margins. He realised that the future of the Catholic faith depends on its ability to become a counterculture formed by small creative minorities that will be a leaven of salvation. This corresponds to Biblical experience, and to Christian experience as well.
We recognise here the red thread that preserved classical culture after the fall of Rome — as Kenneth Clark explains in the TV series Civilisation; that saved Eastern icons from iconoclastic fury; that challenged the seemingly unstoppable power of Arianism. It was also the experience of the Jewish people through a continuous diaspora that lasted for centuries and millennia. Ratzinger saw in this a sign of God’s will.
The Son of God divested himself of all privilege, from his birth in a stable to his death on the cross. ‘The wonder’, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis has written in his commentary on Matthew, ‘is that the eternal God would have chosen this way of weakness and hiddenness to accomplish his designs for the world.’ Like St Benoît-Joseph, Ratzinger put his trust in the Crucified and sought refuge under the shadow of His fragility. With Augustine of Hippo, whom he admired, he proclaimed the essential creed of the Christian, which says: ‘I took leave of myself in order to choose you.’
A pope for the diaspora: that is what Benedict XVI wanted to be. He sought to embody a link that might preserve the deposit of faith on the Holy Saturday of history (the day of the hidden God, according to the liturgy) and to be a witness to hope and gratitude, which is another name for love. His spiritual testament, made public a few hours after his death, expressed these two aspects of a single vocation: to give thanks for life’s good gifts and to pray for the faith of believers.
In a similar way the Dutch nurse Etty Hillesum wrote before her deportation to Auschwitz that, in the night of horror, men must hoist God’s flag and be witnesses to his goodness. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks liked to remind us us that it is the Jewish people’s faith that has carried it through history. For Benedict XVI it was likewise clear that faith, hope and charity, nothing else, will save Christianity in its particular exile. That was his teaching — the teaching of a theologian pope who entered into silence in order to devote himself to adoration, following St Benoît-Joseph’s example.
Indeed, this is how his testament ends: ‘For all those entrusted to me, my heartfelt prayer goes out day after day.’
English translation by Carlos de Ezcurra