That Little-Girl Voice Print
By David Warren   
Saturday, 09 March 2013

 Be sure to read Robert Royal’s Daily Conclave Report, from Rome. You may access it from the ad to the right, or from our new Conclave section on the left (just under the list of Recent Columns), 
or by clicking here.

Let me call him “Father Ratzinger of the Vatican.” I know the official title is “Pope Emeritus,” but it will take some time to get my mind around that. In the time since his resignation was announced (and my first reaction was horror), when I have found the time, I have been rereading him.

Though I have no expertise in such things, I would guess that “Gods Rottweiler,” as the progressive types were expecting back in 2005, was among the gentlest of popes. This does not mean he lacked courage or tenacity. I am referring to a quality throughout his works that I am only now fully appreciating, looking back over the top of his papacy, and in a sense, under it, too.

This begins with the obvious. Though very willing to catechize, Father Ratzinger as pope was reticent to deliver encyclicals. He, who retired from a throne he never wished to ascend in the first place, instinctively deferred to his predecessors, as if he were only a toiler in the vineyard.

I mentioned recently and elsewhere his Wednesday “talks,” through which over a few years he delivered something like an autobiography of the Church, as if written by the Holy Spirit through the lives and reflections of the Saints. A tremendously broad learning quietly supports brief and simple accounts of the first Apostles, the Fathers and Doctors, the holy men and women through the centuries. They are the inner history, transcending outward events.

The old teacher, in his element among young seminarians and fellow priests, and in the halls and corridors and at the coffee stalls of the modern Peripatos, was as opposite to a Rottweiler as a professor can safely get, though quite obviously not a poodle, either. (The French special forces have been known to use poodles, however; never underestimate these creatures.)

The Father Ratzinger we get to keep – for as long as his books may remain – correlates closely with his soft voice, and the smile in which I was hardly the first to detect something beatific. Though utterly organized, in the best German way, he is always less lecturer than tutor and friend. His writing voice is adapted to the single reader, of whom he is extremely respectful.

Often he seems less and more than priest. His book on The Spirit of the Liturgy is remarkable for its way of standing outside and inside the subject at once, with a reverent “aestheticism” (unfortunate German word; I am referring to the apprehension of beauty). The liturgy is lifted above mere controversy, for he is using it to teach us bewildered Catholics how to pray; how to stand and kneel before the altar, spiritually.

How, in effect, to become aloof from our own desires, our own will to impose upon God, and thereby make His light burden heavier for ourselves. Let the Host speak; and let us allow it the Splendor: “The Church as a whole must, for the sake of God, strive for the best, for from the very nature of the liturgy, by an inner necessity, comes a culture that becomes a standard for all secular culture.”

          Reinhold Schneider and Joseph Ratzinger: awakening souls

He speaks personally or, if you will, privately to each of us about a Church and teaching that is unambiguously public, today as in pagan Rome. Father Ratzinger was never in doubt, as pope, just as he was never in doubt, before, that the Catholic Church must speak not only to Catholics, but to Everyman. He does so himself, and his engagement with the intellectual and political life of our time is not reticent, but natural.

Here I am thinking of his exhilarating collection, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics, to which I return with a renewed sense of its relevance to the present worldly condition; and with a new private appreciation of how much this man improved my own political judgment, even before I became a Catholic.

Partly it was his gift for distinguishing the important from the unimportant. There are many ways to achieve the same thing, and we should be open to what is open, not obsessed with obstacles along our preferred route. But more essentially, Father Ratzinger writes large from small.

A most happy example of this is his talk, “Conscience in Its Time,” delivered to the Reinhold Schneider Society, forty years ago. That he chose to deal with a novelist and poet – one who is seriously underestimated – is the first point to note. (Schneider survived Hitler only because his trial was postponed beyond the end of the regime; and because the Nazis were too stupid to realize until too late what a threat he had been to them.)

Through Schneider, Father Ratzinger puts his hand upon the basic political conflict of the modern era, for Catholics and for everybody. This is the conflict between totalitarianism in its myriad (including democratic) forms, and conscience. It is illustrated in Schneiders novel about Bartolomé de las Casas, the Dominican who was the Churchs first appointed “Protector of the Indians” in the New World of the sixteenth century.

Within this novel (translated as Imperial Mission, 1948) we find an encounter between a frail, powerless native girl of the Lucayos tribe, and one of Spains more ruthless fortune hunters. She is a trifle. All she can do is suffer. And by her suffering, she reawakens the fortune hunters dead soul.

Father Ratzinger asks: “Is it not crazy to count on this little-girl conscience, when we see what really matters to the world and the only things that count in it? . . .What are we supposed to do, conduct politics with poetry and in that way solve the problems of our time?”

And he allows this question to answer itself. The power of Christ was “projected” through His powerless suffering; and likewise the power of the Church, when she has real power; and likewise the power in every man. It will prevail.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


Other Articles By This Author