By Josh Mansfield
“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” – Pope Benedict XVI.
I remember in the early days of my journey to the Church of Rome Christmas Eve of 2012. I had decided to turn on the Christmas Eve Mass from Rome and saw a man, who I had seen before on TV, process down the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica on a platform since he was already struggling with walking long distances at that point. The man was dressed in beautiful liturgical garments, garments that so many tend to scoff at and try to claim just makes everything about the priest. But that was not the case with Pope Benedict XVI. During this Mass, I saw in this man a beautiful simplicity and a profound wisdom, devotion, love, and humility. In the very brief time that Benedict was Supreme Pontiff during my journey to the Church (I did not enter finally until Easter 2016), there was something that struck me about him that I just couldn’t put my finger on. And I hadn’t even begun to read any of his works yet or learn anything about his life. I was still extremely green to Catholicism. But I remember the day he announced his resignation. I was in my freshman world history class in high school at the end of the day and our teacher, Mr. Senedak, told us what had happened that day. My mouth dropped. I was shocked. Days later I sat and watched the recording of him leaving the Vatican and, for some unknown reason, I started to shed tears. And now, having been a Catholic these six years, I understand why.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope after the death of Saint John Paul II, he began his Pontificate on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica with these words, “Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the Cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord. The fact that the Lord knows how to work and to act even with insufficient instruments comforts me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers. In the joy of the Risen Lord, confident of his unfailing help, let us move forward. The Lord will help us, and Mary, His Most Holy Mother, will be on our side.” These words completely expressed the man Joseph Ratzinger and Pope Benedict XVI. Throughout his life, Benedict was a man of humility and a man of uncompromising devotion to the Lord and His truth in his work. When Benedict was ordained a priest on June 29, 1951, the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, a dove flew to the top of the altar the very moment the Archbishop placed his hands on Joseph Ratzinger’s head. This signaled what was to come. As a priest, he served as an expert at the Second Vatican Council and contributed to its teachings. When Joseph Ratzinger was made Archbishop of Munich, he chose as his episcopal (and later papal) motto, “Cooperatores veritatis”. “Cooperators of the truth”. The reason he chose this motto was because, he said, “In today’s world the theme of truth has all but disappeared, because truth appears to be too great for man, and yet everything falls apart if there is no truth.” But he also later said, “In Christ we see the face of Truth. Truth is not an idea, but a Person”. And anyone familiar with the man Joseph Ratzinger or the Pope Benedict XVI knows he lived this through and through. Benedict was known by many as “God’s Rottweiler” for his many years as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith where he kept the line for the Churches perennial doctrine and truth and held firm against the assaults of a world seeking the Church to change with it. But Ratzinger held firm, and for years was villainized for it. But Benedict did not let this villainization affect him and his own work of dialogue and unity. He was able to make the most complex of truths come across in such simple and beautiful ways for people to understand. And even still, Benedict never wanted either of the jobs he had. He tried to refuse the position of Prefect in Rome and multiple times requested of John Paul that he be allowed to step down and retire to work as a librarian in the Vatican Archives. But John Paul always refused. While questions have arised in recent years on his handling of certain cases back during his short tenure as Cardinal Archbishop in Munich (which were refuted), in the Vatican at the CDF, he worked tirelessly to investigate, prosecute, and laicize priests credibly accused of sexual abuse, with over 800 priests being laicized and over 2,500 others being given strict penalties from 2004 to 2014 according to The Pillar.
For me, personally (like many) I am indebted to Benedict XVI for his profound writings, but specifically his writings on the Liturgy. As Catholics, as Christians, there is absolutely nothing more important that we do besides the Sacred Liturgy. And Benedict himself had a great love and respect for the Liturgy. While Benedict was very humble, he knew the Liturgy was not about him, but about the Lord, he did everything he could to bring that beauty out in full force in the Liturgy, from restoring formally discontinued liturgical garments, to the solemnity, reverence, and devotion with which he celebrated each Liturgy, everything he did and wrote concerning Liturgy was for the Lord and for the Church. Benedict issued Sumorum Pontificum, with which he lifted restrictions on the Traditional Latin Mass in the hopes that it would exist side by side with the Missal of Saint Paul VI in 2006 and be mutually enriching, as he called it. And then in 2009 he issued Anglicanorum ccoetibus by which he established the Anglican Ordinariates for former members of the Anglican churches to enter the Catholic Church while retaining the elements of their liturgical patrimony.
Pope Francis has said of Benedict that he was, “Great in strength and intellectual insight, great in his significant contribution to theology, great in his love for the Church and for human beings, great in his virtue and his religiosity”. In his homily for Solemn Vespers and the Te Deum on the day of his death, Pope Francis said, “At this moment, my thought naturally goes to dear Pope emeritus Benedict XVI who left us this morning. We are moved as we recall him as such a noble person, so kind. And we feel such gratitude in our hearts: gratitude to God for having given him to the Church and to the world; gratitude to him for all the good he accomplished, and above all, for his witness of faith and prayer, especially in these last years of his recollected life. Only God knows the value and the power of his intercession, of the sacrifices he offered for the good of the Church.”
For nearly ten years, following his resignation, Father Benedict lived out his life as his Papal namesake, St. Benedict, as a simple monk praying for the Church. His prayers, I dare say, have sustained the Church here on earth, and I will also dare say, will sustain us even more as he sits among the Apostles and Doctors in glory. This man, who fiercely defended the teachings of the Church, who took care of the stray cats of Rome, who loved orange Fanta and to play Mozart, who wanted to simply retire as a librarian, who prayed to the Lord, “Do not do this to me” during the Conclave that made him Pope, and who led the Church as a firm but caring Pastor lived his last years in hidden, simple humility as a bulwark of prayer for the Church. God’s Rottweiler truly became our German Shepherd.
The one lesson I can think of most right now that I believe sums up Benedict XVI’s legacy is this quote where he said, “In the Eucharist we receive something that we cannot do, but instead enter something greater that becomes our own, precisely when we give ourselves to this thing that is greater, truly seeking to celebrate the Liturgy as the Church’s Liturgy”. Pope Benedict XVI lived out the Liturgy in the most beautiful way. Joseph Ratzinger was born on Holy Saturday in the very midst of the Sacred Triduum of the celebration of Christ’s Paschal Mystery. And now, he dies during the Octave of Christmas on a Saturday (Our Lady’s day), on the feast of Pope Saint Sylvester I who reigned when Christianity was first made legal by Constantine. It also happens to be the Vigil of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, who Benedict so loved. Benedict also loved the Liturgy of the Hours, and so it’s interesting, in an ironic twist, that one cannot actually say the Office of the Dead for him today or tomorrow because the Solemnity takes precedence in the Liturgy of the Hours. But, as Father Harrison Ayre noted, “There is a note of Divine work in it all. Incarnation & Cross—united themes for him—lived out liturgically in him in the most real way possible. For Ratzinger, incarnation is related to ontology, Cross to history, but that the proper vision of Christ is that they must both be taken into account in Christology”. Benedict’s writings on Christology are very beautifully put in his 3-volume work Jesus of Nazareth (for which he may one day be declared a Doctor of the Church for along with all his other writings). It is also providential that he passed away on New Year’s Eve (which Germans still simply call “Sylvester”), when traditionally, the ancient hymn the Te Deum is sung to gain a plenary indulgence. The Te Deum has been translated into many languages, particularly German and English as Pope Benedict’s favorite hymn, ‘Holy God We Praise Thy Name”. How fitting that the whole Church is singing this hymn today as he has given his soul to God. Is there anything more beautiful than that?
And now, as the life of the great theologian in Joseph Ratzinger and the humble Pastor in Pope Benedict XVI has come to a close, we pray for the repose of his soul. We pray that, at his death, St. Joseph and Our Lady led him joyfully to our Lord who told him, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and share your Master’s joy”. We pray now that he is at rest with that firm hope in the Resurrection and the sure knowledge that, as Benedict reminds us now, “In the end, the Lord wins”.
May the Angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs greet you at your arrival and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem. May the choir of Angels greet you and like Lazarus, who once was a poor man, may you have eternal rest.
O God, who in your wondrous providence chose your servant Pope Benedict to preside over your Church, grant, we pray, that, having served as the Vicar of your Son on earth, he may be welcomed by him into eternal glory. Who lives and reigns with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God forever and ever. Amen.
Requiescat in pace, Father Benedict.
Großer Gott, wir loben dich!
Herr, wie preisen deine Stärke!
Vor dir beugt der Erde sich,
und bewundert deine Werke!
Wie du warft vor aller Zeit,
so bleibst du in Ewigkeit.
Holy God, we praise thy name.
Lord of all, we bow before thee.
All on earth thy scepter claim;
all in heav’n above adore thee.
Infinite thy vast domain,
everlasting is thy reign.