Four Great Things About Pope Benedict

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For nearly 1,700 years, New Year’s Eve in the Roman Catholic Church has been the feast of St. Sylvester, after a fourth century pope. Someday, it will also be the feast of St. Benedict XVI.

The former Joseph Ratzinger died this morning, at age 95.

The surprisingly high-pitched and friendly former pope – “God’s Rottweiler” may be the most ridiculous nickname in the history of nicknames – leaves behind a poorer world because of his loss.

Here are four things we should be grateful to Pope Benedict for:


1.  Theology

Joseph Ratzinger described God and how to get closer to Him in ways both profound and accessible. That’s a rare combination.

Most of the time, to read Ratzinger is to agree with him – and come away elevated.

Consider a snippet from the second book of his three-volume Jesus of Nazareth, analyzing the Transfiguration. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe the event, in which Jesus climbs a mountain with three of his disciples and suddenly looks different – his face shines “like the sun” and his clothes become “dazzling white, whiter than any fuller’s lye on earth could get them.”

Interesting, impressive … but what’s it all about?

Ratzinger notes that only Luke describes the purpose of the journey – “to pray.”

Ratzinger says:

“The Transfiguration is a prayer event; it displays visibly what happens when Jesus talks with his Father:  the profound interpenetration of his being with God, which then becomes pure light.  In his oneness with the Father, Jesus is himself ‘light from light.’ “

Moreover, says Ratzinger, “the garment of white light … speaks of our future as well.”


“Through baptism we are clothed with Jesus in light and we ourselves become light.”

There’s more – lots more. But here, in plain language, Ratzinger draws readers closer to God – and makes it look almost effortless.


2.  Clergy Sex Abuse Response

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger caught on to the clergy sex abuse scandal much faster than many of his fellow bishops and did more to try to stop it than almost anyone.

In 2001, at a time when many churchmen were trying to dismiss the problem as a media attack on the Roman Catholic Church, Ratzinger successfully campaigned to get clergy sex abuse cases transferred to his office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – and then dealt with them.

As pope, Benedict XVI sharply increased the number of priests laicized because of sexual abuse.

He also became the first pope to meet with victims of clergy sex abuse – during trips to the United States, Australia, and England.

Few Catholic bishops can claim to have done enough when it comes to this topic, and Benedict’s record isn’t perfect. Questions remain about how he dealt with priest abusers as archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982. And as pope he didn’t come up with an effective way to deal with bishops accused of misconduct.

But he helped right the Barque of Peter on this most toxic of Church problems.


3.  ‘Dictatorship of Relativism’ Sermon

On the day the 2005 conclave began, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the favorite to become pope.

As his last public act before the conclave began, he delivered a sermon that was anything but a campaign speech.

Instead, he identified a clear problem confronting the Church, in unambiguous terms.

“Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine,’ seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

In a paragraph, Ratzinger encapsulated two of his most endearing virtues:  truth and humility.


4.  Resignation

Many believing, practicing Catholics chide Pope Benedict for resigning in February 2013, particularly because of the uneven papacy of his successor, Pope Francis.

But at age 85, and frail, Benedict knew his limitations. The Vatican Bank scandal of 2012, fueled by documents leaked by his personal butler and others, took a toll on him, and he reportedly did not think he was up to fixing the problems the subsequent investigation dug up.

It does no good to calculate his lifespan after resigning – nine years, 10 months, 3 days – and then conclude we could have had him as pope during that time. An Italian bishop in 2012 was quoted as saying that Benedict would be dead within the year. If he had remained pope, he might have been.

More to the point:  Benedict was thinking not just of himself, but about the long-term interests of the Church. In an age of longevity, popes in their 80s and 90s who may not be up to performing the world’s hardest job need a way out if eternity isn’t immediately beckoning. Thanks to Benedict, they have one.


Rest in peace, Papa.


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