In 1977, a frail, reluctant, 50-year-old college teacher was pressed by his confessor to accept appointment as Bishop of Munich. The job would take him from his beloved students and embroil him in ecclesial and political struggles for which he had little taste. Reluctantly, that good scholar, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, accepted the appointment.
Unnoticed by most people, on the coat of arms that he created for his service as bishop Fr. Ratzinger included a puzzling symbol: a bear with a pack on its back.
Just four years later, Pope John Paul II summoned Bishop Ratzinger to Rome. There, for a quarter of a century more—and now as Cardinal Ratzinger—he bore extraordinarily heavy burdens as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the second most important office in the Church. In the final three paragraphs of the fascinating memoir he wrote while still Prefect of the Congregation, Cardinal Ratzinger explained the significance of the bear:
According to legend, on his way from Germany to Rome in the early 700s, St. Corbinian’s horse was torn to pieces by a bear. Corbinian reprimanded the bear, loaded onto it the pack the horse had been carrying, and made the bear haul that burden all the way to Rome. Only then did Corbinian release the bear.
Then Cardinal Ratzinger quotes Psalm 22 (“When my heart was bewildered, I was stupid and ignorant. I was like a dumb beast before You. I am always with You”). He tells us that in those very words, St. Augustine spoke of the burdens he carried once he became bishop:
A draft animal am I before You … for You. And this is precisely how I abide with You.
How often, continues Cardinal Ratzinger, writing the last paragraphs of his memoir …
did Augustine protest to heaven against all the trifles that continually blocked his path and kept him from the intellectual work he knew to be his deepest calling! But this is where the Psalm helps him avoid bitterness: “Yes, indeed, I am become a draft animal, a beast of burden, an ox—and yet this is just the way in which I abide with You, serving You, just the way in which You keep me in your hand.”
And then, years before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger says:
The heavily laden bear that took the place of St. Corbinian’s horse, or rather donkey—the bear that became his donkey against its will: is this not an image of what I should do and of what I am?
His answer? For the last eight years, he’s placed it right before us, right there on his Papal Coat of Arms.
It is said of St. Corbinian that, once in Rome, he again released the bear to its freedom. The legend is not concerned about whether it went up into the Abruzzi or returned to the Alps. In the meantime I have carried my load to Rome and have now been wandering the streets of the Eternal City for a long time. I do not know when I will be released, but one thing I do know. Augustine’s remark applies to me, too: “I am become your donkey, and in just this way I abide with you.”
Less than 24 hours ago—God be praised!—and after 36 years of carrying burdens he would never have chosen himself, our faithful bear was finally released, traveling neither into the nearby hills of Abruzzi nor back over his beloved Alps, but merely the short distance to Castel Gandolfo where he can pray and think and write, far from the increasingly shrill and reckless attacks that countless souls and organizations have unleashed against him and his beloved Church.
Have you ever seen the Pope or the Church assaulted so frequently, so viciously, and with such reckless disregard for what they actually believe and do?
Just two days ago in his final Wednesday audience, speaking of his eight years’ tenure, Pope Benedict admitted that sometimes he felt like St. Peter and the apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee.
The Lord gave us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days when fishing was plentiful. Then there were times when the waters were rough and there was a head wind, times when it seemed the Lord slept. But I always knew that it was the Lord’s boat, not mine. Not ours. He will not let it sink. He leads it, and yes, does so through the men He chooses, because He wants it to be so. This was, and is, a certainty that nothing can tarnish.
Now, pursued by critics as cruel and as persistent as dogs after a bear, this good man chosen by God to lead us for a time has finally had the burdens lifted from his shoulders.
May the teeth of his critics cease to tear his soul, may the sounds of their cries fade away!
This I pray, and pray genuinely—for Benedict, but not for you and me. Our time of battle is not done … nor even hardly begun.
In fact, just last year Benedict himself placed on your shoulders and mine a burden which we cannot—and must not—shirk. Just over a year ago, Pope Benedict told our American bishops that in the face of hostile forces that threaten not just our Christian faith, but humanity itself, committed believers must never fall silent.
Catholics, he told them, must confront anti-Christian forces—the very ones inflamed to harm him now—with “rational arguments in the public square” to help shape the values that will shape the future.
Essential to this task, Benedict told our American bishops, is “an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture.” That’s you and me. You and I have become St. Corbinian’s bear!
You and I and the other 129,998 individuals who read Crisis each month, plus the dozens of new ones we add every day. We, the new generation of Catholics who have been formed intellectually and spiritually by Pope John Paul II and by Pope Benedict XVI, have inherited the burdens borne these past 30+ years by these two great priests and thinkers.
Earlier this week I told you that of the $100,000 it takes to help equip you intellectually and spiritually for this struggle, Sophia Institute Press contributes $40,000 in goods and services, charging Crisis nothing for rent, editing, billing, data entry, phone services, and the manifold other costs, large and small, that eat away at the vitality of most businesses.
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And whether or not you contribute, please pray that in the freedom from burdens finally granted him, our beloved Benedict, our own St. Corbinian’s bear—will find the rest he needs, and the solace that, after such an ordeal, God alone can grant. For us—for you in your apostolate and for us in ours—please pray that Our Lord may finally grant us the privilege of being able genuinely to say, with Augustine and Pope Benedict:
Yes, indeed, I am become a draft animal, a beast of burden, an ox—and yet this is just the way in which I abide with You, serving You, just the way in which You keep me in your hand.
Thank you, and may God bless you, and bless our beloved Church!
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