The Quiet Power of Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI had a huge success at World Youth Day 2008 last week, attracting twice as many people to Australia as Barack Obama did to Berlin. It was the largest gathering in Australian history, but it barely appeared outside the Catholic media. Australia organized events very well and highlighted papal pageantry in ways that seem to have touched non-Catholics and even non-believers — and left the usual critics very much in the background. Benedict’s trips, however, are not successful merely because of good organization. Germany, for some reason, did not execute WYD2005 very well at Cologne, yet Benedict made a big impression there. And it does not even seem that his own conscious efforts have been the key to his success. His speeches and homilies in Australia, and in the United States this year, are very good and are worth rereading. But that’s the problem. They are so dense and sophisticated that they do not work very well as oral presentations. His attractiveness, I believe, comes from a different source.

The Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz once said of John Paul II: “Among the statesmen, the monarchs, the leaders of the twentieth century, other than Karol Wojtyla [JPII], there is not a single figure who could fit our image of kingly majesty. Only he could truly play Shakespeare’s kings.” John Paul II confronting petty tyrants like Poland’s Wojciech Jaruzelski or Cuba’s Fidel Castro was a true lion on the world stage. He had the actor’s gift of knowing his lines and of sending them crackling over a crowd like lightning. By comparison, even the eloquent Obama is a ham actor with an almost entirely forgettable script.

Benedict XVI’s charisma is quite different. If JPII was a Shakespearean king, Benedict is a Mozart symphony. The words are pleasant and tumble out with an energy and lightness that everyone likes, but few entirely appreciate at first hearing. And he is conspicuously modest – if the paradox can stand – and utterly sincere without seeming to have worked at it. His Regensberg students described him as the best prepared, kindest, most helpful professor, even when they disagreed with him – and he knew it. In this, too, Benedict presents a Mozartean virtuosity.

He did not sound many new themes in Australia. Before arriving, he noted: “Many young people today lack hope. They are perplexed by the questions that present themselves ever more urgently in a confusing world, and they are often uncertain which way to turn for answers. They see poverty and injustice and they long to find solutions. They are challenged by the arguments of those who deny the existence of God and they wonder how to respond. They see great damage done to the natural environment through human greed and they struggle to find ways to live in greater harmony with nature and with one another.” All of this, especially the environmental emphasis, was repeated in various WYD events. (Unfortunately, the Holy See today routinely connects environmental problems with greed and not with the unintended consequences of trying to raise the well-being of poor people around the world, the far more usual cause).

But he also struck some personal notes in his opening homily: “Don’t spend your life sitting on the fence, keeping your options open, because only commitments bring fulfilment. Happiness comes from meeting our obligations, doing our duty, especially in small matters and regularly, so we can rise to meet the harder challenges. . . .To be a disciple of Jesus requires discipline, especially self discipline; what Paul calls self control. The practice of self control won’t make you perfect (it hasn’t with me), but self control is necessary to develop and protect the love in our hearts and prevent others, especially our family and friends, from being hurt by our lapses into nastiness or laziness.”

Australia’s Cardinal George Pell has been a more sharply outspoken public figure. Benedict, for instance, met with leaders of other Christian churches as well Muslim and non-Christian communities and invited all to join in the great task of building a global civilization. Pell has said in several highly influential articles that dialogue with Muslims requires that we first speak frankly and clarify questions like the use of violence. Benedict guardedly speaks the language of “fundamental human rights.” Pell earlier this year opposed plans to write an Australian bill of rights because he knows the kinds of freakishness that will be claimed as human rights.

Yet we see even more clearly after WYD2008 that Benedict has his own quiet and powerful way of truth telling. He virtually summed up his whole position during the welcoming ceremony at Bangaroo: “There are many today who claim that God should be left on the sidelines, and that religion and faith, while fine for individuals, should either be excluded from the public forum altogether or included only in the pursuit of limited pragmatic goals. This secularist vision seeks to explain human life and shape society with little or no reference to the Creator. It presents itself as neutral, impartial and inclusive of everyone. But in reality, like every ideology, secularism imposes a world-view. If God is irrelevant to public life, then society will be shaped in a godless image, and debate and policy concerning the public good will be driven more by consequences than by principles grounded in truth.”

Few public figures can put so much into so few words. The crowds come for the immediate goodness of the man. The truths may take longer to absorb. But they are there for all who have eyes to see.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.