In the long march of the Church’s history, stretching all the way back to a certain failed fisherman called Peter—whom Christ himself caught with the bait of eternal life—few occupants of the papal chair have evinced as lofty a level of erudition, existing in happy combination with ardent and uncomplicated piety, as the Bavarian Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Who, God willing, turns ninety on April 16, this Easter Sunday.
Although he was not born on the feast of Easter, but the day before, the Vigil of the Lord’s Resurrection, which sacred tradition speaks of as the Mystery of Holy Saturday, it remains central to his life. And when he was at once baptized with water freshly blessed for the great feast, it left an impression. In fact, it is a point he makes much of in Milestones, which is a moving account of his life from 1927, when he came into this world, until 1977, when he became Archbishop of Munich. Chosen on the strength of a single book, Introduction To Christianity, which grew out of lectures delivered at Tubingen in 1967, it evidently so captivated the then Pope Paul VI that he had him elevated straightaway into the episcopacy. After that, the scramble to the top was swift and sure. Only he was never one to scramble.
But getting back to the timing of his birth, he believed it to have been the result of divine Providence that, coming into the world when he did, he should then have been the first to be baptized. The experience filled him, he said, “with thanksgiving for having had my life immersed in this way in the Easter mystery.” Putting it a little differently, we might say that given the pilgrim shape of the soul, of an existence lived always on the way, forever in transit, this sudden and dramatic juxtaposition of already and not yet struck him as wonderfully “fitting,” since it left him in a state of “still awaiting Easter … not yet standing in the full light but walking toward it full of trust.” What can that mean for the rest of us but that we need constantly to be in a state of readiness before the door of Easter, waiting expectantly for it to swing open, yet not quite able to cross the threshold. The pivotal moment, then, becomes the event of baptism, which he would years later describe, in an arresting formulation, as nothing less than “the final mutation in the evolution of the human species.”
He has certainly been living that tension a very long time. Meanwhile, the record of his achievements, which are vast, varied, and undeniable, testifies to an amazing and productive life. But what remains especially instructive about that life, one crowded with accomplishment, is the fact that he has spent it in a constant state of trust, of overarching hope in the Lord. And why shouldn’t his life have been stepped in such trust? Benedict is, after all, a Christian, a believer, which means someone who carries within him the adamantine conviction that Another accompanies him every step of the way. Perhaps this is why the virtue of hope figures with the same striking prominence in his writings as it does in his life. “The dark door of time, of the future,” he reminds us in Spe Salvi, that most beautiful of encyclicals, undertaken to unearth the meaning of the theological virtue revealed as Hope, “has been thrown open.” And in showing us the face of Christ, we are thus given a saving glimpse of Someone to whom we may entrust everything, including especially our brokenness and sin.
But Christ is not merely a face to be seen, as though salvation were nothing more than a snapshot. There is God’s outstretched hand as well, which we are free to grab hold of because it is the hand of Jesus who, first grasping hold of my own hand, enables the two of us to move together through the dark valley. Here we see, he tells us in a profound and telling passage from Introduction To Christianity, “the most fundamental feature of faith … namely, its personal character:
Christian faith is more than the option in favor of a spiritual ground to the world; its central formula is not ‘I believe in something,’ but ‘I believe in Thee.’ It is the encounter with the human being Jesus, and in this encounter it experiences the meaning of the world as a person.
The life of a believer, in other words, is that of someone who stands on the secure ground of God alone, who thereby “lives on the discovery that not only is there such a thing as objective meaning, but that this meaning knows me and loves me, I can entrust myself to it like the child that knows all its questions answered in the ‘You’ of its mother.”
For Benedict, then, and for the Church he no longer leads but continues surely to inspire and to pray for, Christ is “the true shepherd … who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me.” This is because Christ, having fallen himself into the hellish depths of that strangest of mysteries found at the center of the creed (on which day he, the future pope, was born), is uniquely placed to vanquish all the darkness that surrounds and oppresses us, since he himself already assumed it out of an incomprehensible depth of love. Neither death nor the devil, therefore, need hold us in fear any more.
And who better than Mary, he asks at the very end of Spe Salvi, to help blaze that trail home to God? “Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her ‘yes’ she opened the door of our world to God himself….” And if the future belongs to those who show up, what better company to have on a journey than one who, having already arrived herself, can, like a good mother, nudge the rest of us across the same finish line?
“When you hastened with holy joy across the mountains of Judea to see your cousin Elizabeth,” he writes, citing the great Mystery of the Visitation, “you became the image of the Church to come, which carries the hope of the world in her womb across the mountains of history.”
This is heady stuff. And it is but a single stone in the great mosaic of his work, that will soon belong to the ages. And, like everything else he thought and wrote about, it remains most wonderfully evocative of the great themes on which his life turns. What a towering presence he has been for the Catholic world all these years! Not a day goes by that I do not thank God for this holy and learned man. May God reward him greatly for the many good things he has done for Christ, the Church, and for the world he came to save.