To live in Germany is to live with the sound of pealing church bells. They ring regularly throughout the day and provide a backdrop of sacred sound to daily life in major metropolitan areas, large towns, and even small villages. Bells are a loud witness to lingering Christian memory that time and atheism have still not entirely erased. In the not-so-distant past, bells were used not only to keep time, but to call people to the Liturgy, to remind them of the Angelus, or to announce a funeral. They were a testament to a sacramental life that formed the backbone of European culture.
On New Year’s Eve at 11 am central European time, the bells broke their regular daily rhythm, and for close to an hour announced to German society the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Throughout the day among the sounds of fireworks from early New Year’s revelers, bells continued to toll marking the passing of one of Germany’s most preeminent and respected sons.
And they will ring again today for his funeral.
Germans reacted to the announcement of Pope Benedict’s death with a curious mixture of restraint and pride. Local and national newspapers extolled their favorite son from Bavaria without quite knowing how to describe him. A priest, a cardinal, a pope – something quaint from a forgotten past?
Local Germans with whom I spoke in a small mostly Protestant town located outside of Frankfurt, knew of him, but otherwise didn’t recall very much about him. Like the bells, his life has been part of the national background, a witness to the true heart of German life, now so darkly obscured by clouds of paganism and atheism.
This is why in his “Spiritual Testament,” Benedict wrote, “I thank the people of my homeland for allowing me to experience the beauty of faith time and again. I pray that our country will remain a country of faith and I ask you, dear compatriots, not to let your faith be distracted.”
Secular society here has a relationship with its very own Bavarian pope as complex as its relationship to both history and religious affairs in general. Joseph Ratzinger’s formation and development occurred during the fraught period of the Second World War, initiated by the Nazi regime. Benedict was one of the last of the living connections to this difficult past.
In a society that seeks freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion, he served as an uncomfortable reminder to an atheistic government determined to remove every vestige of religion from public life, if not yet to completely destroy religion.
This brilliantly gifted pope was a living reminder that Germany’s historic greatness came from men and women like St. Bonaventure, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St. Hildegard and so many others who chose to selflessly serve God and not a Godless state.
As Benedict warned the German Bundestag when he visited in 2011:
How do we recognize what is right? In history, systems of law have almost always been based on religion: decisions regarding what was to be lawful among men were taken with reference to the divinity. Unlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation. Instead, it has pointed to nature and reason as the true sources of law – and to the harmony of objective and subjective reason, which naturally presupposes that both spheres are rooted in the creative reason of God.
For obvious reasons, the burden of history weighs heavy on the shoulders of German society. Though younger generations of Germans have distanced themselves from the guilt of the notorious past, there is still a specter of shame reflected in a kind of tacit collective agreement not to discuss anything from that period.
The vehemence of the LGBTQ movement in Germany is a direct result of this inability to discuss publicly anything of moral importance. Wholesale support of alternative sexual lifestyles monopolizes the moral discourse without ever having to discuss anything else of substance.
What to do with great grandfather’s war paraphernalia in the attic, or almost a million Middle Eastern refugees who have yet to be even partially integrated into German society, or the regretful collusion with Russia to meet energy needs – and most notably the German Church’s sexual abuse crisis – all these difficult topics are met with deafening silence.
In the past year, Bishop Batzing president of the German Bishop’s Conference has focused an inordinate amount of time blaming the sexual abuse crisis on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI without discussing the actual reasons for sexual abuse by the clergy. There’s a close connection between the willful reluctance to examine this thorny subject and Germany’s heretical “Synodal Way.” Catholic pews have emptied, while bishops and priests have all the energy in the world to argue about female deacons. But can’t seem to find the time to evangelize by preaching the loving message of Jesus Christ.
In the very same land that gave birth to brilliant philosophers, theologians, and some of Western civilization’s most treasured artists and cultural icons, the freedom to think and courageously express a genuine opinion without social scorn grows ever narrower. Germans fear repercussions in employment and civil society for expressing their faith openly in public. Seminarians who do not agree with the woke and heretical curriculum being taught in Catholic seminaries are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal.
Ironically, on the last day of 2022, on the eve of the Feast of Mary, Mother of God, the bells of Germany spoke loudly for a population needing to express grief and pride for one of their greatest citizens. For a native son who never ceased to tell his beloved Germany “to hold firm Christ’s central position in our lives. May He always be first in our thoughts and in all our activities!”
*Image: The Lullusglocke, the oldest datable cast bell in Germany: cast on June 24, 1038. It hangs in the Catherine Tower (Katharinenturm) in the ruins of the monastery of Bad Hersfeld in Hesse.
You may also enjoy:
+James V. Scall, S.J.’s Benedict XVI on Freedom
Fr. Gerald Murray’s and Michael Pakaluk’s Two Commentaries of Benedict XVI’s Letter