Generations of the future will look back at our time and marvel. They will marvel but perhaps also worry about the scientific progress of our age. They may or may not marvel at our creativity. They will certainly not marvel at our capacity to keep peace among ourselves. They will marvel above all that the Holy Spirit nurtured and gave to us a gift such as the pastor and theologian, aide and confidant to the Supreme Pontiff, St. John Paul II, and finally Christ’s Vicar himself, Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.
We who have lived through the second half of the 20th century and into the early decades of the new millennium, were for many of those decades unaware of what was in our midst. This man of exceptional intelligence was grappling away with the most important questions facing mankind, teaching, writing for what was for a time a select few. Then came a momentous event in the history of the Church, the second ever Vatican Council. He was there as an aide, and advisor, to one of its leading prelates. He was noticed, but not by many of us. His vocation was gradually revealing itself to him and with its demands he had to struggle. He did so heroically. He only ever wanted to be a priest and a teacher of theology.
Finally, in the last decades of the old millennium he was called to assist the Vicar of Christ himself in his divine mission. Then we all began to notice the gift we had received..
Joseph Ratzinger, as theologian, teacher and supreme pastor will stand out in the history of Christianity, over the past several hundred years, as one of the most exceptional human beings ever chosen by God to fulfill the mandate given by Christ to his apostles when he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The Holy Spirit, down through the ages, has been guiding His Church with the help of numerous human beings and using many instruments for His communications – councils, decrees, encyclicals, to name but a few. He has chosen and nurtured men and women with great minds to be our teachers, mostly now identified as Doctors of the Church. Among these St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas stand out. In that line Joseph Ratzinger must now surely take his place.
No pope in our time, not even the great St. John Paul II, no pope for even centuries past since the invention of the printing press has left us with the volume of theological reflection, exposition and prayerful but exacting fruit of deep study, as has Joseph Ratzinger. His oeuvre is bewildering in its breadth but absolutely breathtaking in its exacting scholarship. The vast majority of it was not written with the authority of his office as Supreme Pontiff, a relatively short period of his life. Nevertheless, knowing it, we can see in those divinely inspired authoritative teachings of his papacy, the fruits of his many years of theological reflection.
Consider this, as one example. There could be so many, I only chose this because I have read and marvelled at it so recently. It is from a little book first published in 1991, CALLED TO COMMUNION – UNDERSTANDING THE CHURCH TODAY. In one section he is examining the question of the primacy of Peter and the unity of the Church.
We have seen that the New Testament as a whole strikingly demonstrates the primacy of Peter; we have seen that the formative development of tradition and of the Church supposed the continuation of Peter’s authority in Rome as an intrinsic condition. The Roman primacy is not an invention of the popes, but an essential element of ecclesial unity that goes back to the Lord and was developed faithfully in the nascent Church.
But the New Testament shows us more than the formal aspect of a structure; it also reveals to us the inward nature of this structure. It does not merely furnish proof texts, it is a permanent criterion and task. It depicts the tension between skandalon (the weakness of humanity)* and rock; in the very disproportion between man’s capacity and God’s sovereign disposition, it reveals God to be the one who truly acts and is present.
If in the course of history the attribution of such authority to men could repeatedly engender the not entirely unfounded suspicion of human arrogation of power, not only the promise of the New Testament but also the trajectory of that history itself, prove the opposite. The men in question are so glaringly, so blatantly unequal to this function that the very empowerment of man to be the rock makes evident how little it is they who sustain the Church, but God alone who does so, who does so more in spite of men than through them.
The mystery of the Cross is perhaps nowhere so palpably present as in the primacy as a reality of Church history. That its center is forgiveness is both its intrinsic condition and the sign of the distinctive character of God’s power. Every single biblical logion (a saying attributed to Christ, not recorded in the canonical Gospels)* about the primacy thus remains from generation to generation a signpost and a norm, to which we must ceaselessly resubmit ourselves.
When the Church adheres to these words in faith, she is not being triumphalist but humbly recognizing in wonder and thanksgiving the victory of God over and through human weakness. Whoever deprives these words of their force for fear of triumphalism or of human usurpation of authority does not proclaim that God is greater but diminishes him, since God demonstrates the power of his love, and thus remains faithful to the law of the history of salvation, precisely in the paradox of human impotence. For with the same realism with which we declare today the sins of the popes and their disproportion to the magnitude of their commission, we must also acknowledge that Peter has repeatedly stood as the rock against ideologies, against the dissolution of the word into the plausibilities of a given time, against subjection to the powers of this world.
When we see this in the facts of history, we are not celebrating men but praising the Lord, who does not abandon the Church and who desired to manifest that he is the rock through Peter, the little stumbling stone: “flesh and blood” do not save, but the Lord saves through those who are of flesh and blood. To deny this truth is not a plus of faith, not a plus of humility, but is to shrink from the humility that recognizes God as he is. Therefore the Petrine promise and its historical embodiment in Rome remain at the deepest level an ever-renewed motive for joy: the powers of hell will not prevail against it.
How encouraging these words are for us even today, when discordant voices against Peter can be heard in surprising quarters. Joseph Ratzinger, humble, faithful Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, was and is a treasure and a gift. His papal teaching, his words of inspired wisdom, will continue to guide us through the rough terrain ahead as we make our way out of Egypt.
See Position Papers where this and other articles in tribute to Pope Benedict will be published in the January issue in hard copy and online.