“Habemus Papam.” Twenty Months Later, a Portrait

SANDRO MAGISTER

Benedict XVI doesn’t seek applause, he doesn’t harangue the crowds, but he’s still extremely popular. He himself has explained his secret: it is “obedience to the truth, not to the dictatorship of popular opinion”.

Twenty months after his election as pope, Benedict XVI has become a case study on a worldwide level.

One indication along these lines is found in the portrait in words and images given in the book Benedict XVI, the Dawn of a New Papacy, recently published in both Italian and English.

The volume is published by White Star, a publishing group associated with the National Geographic Society.

Its creators are a great Italian photographer, Gianni Giansanti, already famous for his photographs of John Paul II, and the Rome bureau chief of Time magazine, Jeff Israely.

Israely writes, in part:

“The actions of his predecessor amazed the entire world. Benedict XVI, however, makes news with the force of his prose. But his words do not represent a pure intellectual exercise: they are a manifestation of his faith and humanity. In the messenger, the message is made visible.”

This is the same view that was printed in L’espresso in a portrait of pope Joseph Ratzinger published on the eve of his trip to Turkey:

“John Paul II dominated the stage. Benedict XVI offers the crowds his bare words. But he is careful to direct attention toward something beyond himself.”

But much more than this must be said and specified, in order to grasp the distinctive profile of the current pope.

Here follows the portrait of Benedict XVI published in edition no. 47 of L’espresso, November 30, 2006:

Benedict XVI, a Pope Armed with “Purity
by Sandro Magister

The numbers speak. Benedict XVI is the most popular pope in history, if by people one understands those whom he draws like a magnet to St. Peter’s Square each Sunday for the Angelus and each Wednesday for the general audience, from Rome and from all over the world.

Attendance is routinely more than twice that seen by his predecessor, John Paul II, who in his turn had shattered all the records. But the most amazing thing is the relationship between the demand and what is on offer. The winning product that Benedict XVI offers to the crowds is made of nothing but his plain words.

At the Angelus, two times out of three pope Joseph Ratzinger explains the Gospel of that Sunday’s Mass to an audience that includes people who don’t go to church every week — and some who don’t go at all. He explains this with simple words, but these demand and receive attention. There is an impressive silence in St. Peter’s Square when he is speaking. And at the end of the very short homily, he immediately begins the Angelus prayer, without even a momentary pause. This is his effective means of preventing an outbreak of applause. This does happen, but at the end of the entire ceremony, at the moment of the greetings in the various languages.


Obedience to the truth must 'purify' our souls and thus guide us to upright speech and upright action. In other words, speaking in the hope of being applauded, governed by what people want to hear out of obedience to the dictatorship of current opinion, is considered to be a sort of prostitution: of words and of the soul.


As pope, Benedict XVI doesn’t give an inch to the preconceptions that were formed about him as a cardinal. He doesn’t thunder condemnations, he doesn’t hurl anathemas. He reasons staunchly, but serenely. His criticisms against modernity or against the “pathologies” that he sees even within the Church are fully elaborated. That is part of the reason why he has practically silenced Catholic progressivism: not because this has turned friendly toward him, but because it is not able to reply to him with arguments of similar persuasive power.

Benedict XVI does not at all demonstrate a sense of inadequacy in comparison with his predecessor. He doesn’t imitate him in any way. John Paul II didn’t so much walk as process solemnly. Pope Ratzinger goes straight to the finish with rapid strides. John Paul II dominated the stage. Benedict XVI is careful to direct attention toward something beyond himself.

The nighttime vigil with the million young people who came to Germany in August of 2005 remains a memorable occasion. It was the first major media event that the new pope had faced. For minutes on end that seemed like an eternity, Benedict XVI remained in silence, on his knees, in front of the consecrated host placed upon the altar. But this didn’t put the young people ill at ease. It did ruffle the television directors and commentators, who didn’t know any longer what they could say or do to fill up the “void” with which the pope had deflated all the built-up hoopla.

He is the first pope theologian in the Church’s history. But he knows how to teach theology even to ordinary people — and even to children. One of the communication devices that he has come up with is the question-and-answer session with the most varied audiences. He did this even with the tens of thousands of children who had recently received first communion, 9 years old on average, gathered in St. Peter’s Square. A boy asked him: “My catechist told me that Jesus is present in the Eucharist. But how? I can’t see him!” The reply: “Yes, we don’t see him, but there are many things we don’t see that exist and are essential. For example, we don’t see our faculty of reasoning. But we have reason all the same.”

Benedict XVI opened a daring maneuver with the theme of reason. It was upon the relationship between faith and reason that he centered the address that became the most famous and controversial of the first year and a half of his pontificate: the lectio magistralis he delivered at the university of Regensburg on September 12, 2006.

It isn’t a stretch to say that Ratzinger is a herald of the Enlightenment, because he himself has declared that he wants to take up the defense of Enlightenment principles in an age in which few remain to defend reason. Those who expected to find in the former head of the former Holy Office a fideist paladin of dogma have been given their just deserts. For him, it is not only Jerusalem, but it is also the Athens of the Greek philosophers that is at the origin of the Christian faith.

Benedict XVI is not afraid of leveling severe criticism against the religions, beginning with Christianity, precisely in the name of reason. He wants a mutual relationship of oversight and purification to be established between reason and religion. He dedicated two thirds of his lecture in Regensburg to criticizing the phases in which Christianity detached itself from its rational foundations.

The lecture in Regensburg is not the only text that Benedict XVI has written personally, without listening to the experts who certainly would have expurgated these writings. Even the address on the Holocaust that he delivered in Auschwitz and Birkenau was entirely his. And this, too, promptly drew disagreements and polemics — political and theological, from Jews, secularists, and Christians. As pope, Ratzinger often acts with a recklessness that no one expected from him.

And he explained the reason for his speaking “in season and out of season” last October 6, in a homily to the thirty scholars of the international theological commission:

“In this context, a beautiful phrase from the First Letter of St Peter springs to my mind. It is from verse 22 of the first chapter. The Latin goes like this: Castificantes animas nostras in oboedentia veritatis. Obedience to the truth must 'purify' our souls and thus guide us to upright speech and upright action. In other words, speaking in the hope of being applauded, governed by what people want to hear out of obedience to the dictatorship of current opinion, is considered to be a sort of prostitution: of words and of the soul. The ‘purity’ to which the Apostle Peter is referring means not submitting to these standards, not seeking applause, but rather, seeking obedience to the truth. And I think that this is the fundamental virtue for the theologian, this discipline of obedience to the truth, which makes us, although it may be hard, collaborators of the truth, mouthpieces of truth, for it is not we who speak in today's river of words, but it is the truth which speaks in us, who are really purified and made chaste by obedience to the truth. So it is that we can truly be harbingers of the truth.”

That’s just how Benedict XVI is. He feels himself to be so closely girded with this armor of “purity” that he fears no contamination. He scandalized some when he received in private audience at Castel Gandolfo the combative Oriana Fallaci. But one year later he wanted to meet also with Henry Kissinger, the most realistic of the followers if Realpolitik. The prince of the anti-Roman theologians, Hans Küng, has been another of his surprise guests. Benedict XVI simply isn’t the type to be frightened by a dispute, a satire, or a fatwa.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Sandro Magister. "“Habemus Papam.” Twenty Months Later, a Portrait." Chiesa.com (December 5, 2006).

Reprinted with permission from Sandro Magister. English translation by Matthew Sherry, Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.

THE AUTHOR

Sandro Magister manages Chiesa and write from Rome.

Copyright © 2006 Chiesa


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