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Benedict XVI, Still Speaking

Merely to be reminded that the emeritus, Pope Benedict XVI, is still with us, is a great excitement to many. It came to me yesterday, as I struggled (haplessly as ever) with Italian, to read an interview with him by the Belgian Jesuit, Jacques Servais. This was published in Avvenire, the Italian bishops’ daily newspaper.

Ratzinger, as I will always and lovingly think of him, may suffer terribly from old age, in body, but not in mind. He has an extraordinary ability to penetrate through a question, often murky, to the key point. But he has also an intellectual and spiritual tact that makes sharp points in the most charitable way – a way that actually adds to the clarity, provided of course that his audience is actually listening, and not skimming by media-addled habit, to find what it wants to hear.

Yet he has written so much, of such consistently high standard, with utter fidelity to doctrine and to his sources. That we should have had, in our generation, a man still capable of learning in such breadth, while so continuously vexed with the worries of one ecclesiastical office or another, strikes me as uncanny.

He has left a personal library of 20,000 thumbed volumes. The Wednesday “catechisms” he used to deliver, to crowds often of 10,000 or more, were accessible to them by a miracle of distillation and concision only compatible with very wide and deep reading. They are, to my mind, a place for the modern Catholic reader to start, for in the course of his papacy through these Wednesday “talks,” Ratzinger sketched the whole history of the “thinking heart” that is our Church, through the gallery of her saints and sages.

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After three years, I have not forgotten the thrill of this ranging wisdom, which extended far beyond the merely “intellectual.” There is a warmth, a kindly knowingness, an affectionate drollness, behind all his words. There is nothing effete in this man. He inspires us to realize that other such men were possible. He cuts through our shallow cynicism and callow self-regard, as we begin to comprehend the other great men and women in history; that sanctity is possible; that our doubts are from ignorance.

I first “discovered” him in the early days of my Christian conversion, forty years ago. As an Anglican, I came to see him as the most impressive living Christian mind, whose development from Vatican II peritus was worth studying in its successive contexts. I subscribed to Communio, and became aware of his colleagues and influences. In 1986, this Ratzinger came to Toronto. I had the good fortune to glimpse him personally, and concluded that he is genuinely holy. I even thought, “Wouldn’t it be marvelous if such a man were pope?”

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Gentle reader will imagine my astoundment on the 19th of April, 2005.

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            That the Christian faith is not an idea, but a life, was the premise of the interview Ratzinger gave Servais for a Jesuit conference last October, from which the translated excerpts in Avvenire were lifted. It must somewhere be available in its full original German. The context was a discussion of “justification by faith,” in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s pronouncements on this topic.

With his extraordinary tact, Ratzinger from the start confutes the modern notion, passed five centuries down, that faith is the product of deep personal examination and thought: an act essentially of intellectual conviction. It is sacramental in its nature, and the Church into which the “believer” is drawn is a community, before she is an aggregation of autonomous individuals. The man is pulled to God by God, as it were, not by his own impetus.

The society to which Luther was preaching was that which he found at the end of the Middle Ages. It accepted and feared God, and sought justification in God. Today, it is God we think needs justification, in light of the world’s horrors.

And while the man of the early sixteenth century was still inside the “bubble” of Christendom, another inversion had begun. From 1492, Europe was discovering a world that was large, in which Christendom was small. The very idea that salvation was obtainable “only through the Church” was implicitly under challenge.

The “fallout” from Vatican II consisted in the frank acknowledgement of the modern situation. This includes the loss of the missionary zeal with which St Francis Xavier and many in his train went off to the ends of the earth, urgently to convert: to baptize and thus “save the natives.” To our modern mind, which puts God on trial, there was no point. What kind of God would let them all be damned?

By this inversion, and many other causes, the modern man has come to that faith which, where it even exists, is absurdly personal. He does not think he needs the Sacraments and the Church; they have become “an option.” Yet he is profoundly troubled by his own human conscience, whether or not he is able to acknowledge it. And he feels abandoned.

In this hard, cruel, bureaucratic and technological world, he is in the position of the robbed and injured man, who longs for the Samaritan to stop, and help him.

Contrary to the brief news reports I have seen, which cite several of Ratzinger’s remarks out of context, he is not undercutting Bergoglio. On the contrary, he is emphasizing a conception of mercy that Ratzinger himself drew out of the teaching of Wojtyla, and passed on. The “Samaritan” Church is dealing with an un-Christian world that has, like the pre-Christian, found its way to Hell; that is injured and abandoned and is crying for help.

The mission of the Church has paradoxically not “evolved” to suit the new realities. It is rather forced back on its original situation: confronting a “lost world” desperately in need of God’s transcendent mercy. In need, precisely, of Christ and the Sacraments.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.