The Pope Who was Actually a Bear

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.

BearThen 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.

Benedict_Coat_of_ArmsThe future Benedict XVI concludes his 1998 memoir with the following touching words that came suddenly to my mind yesterday as he stepped into the helicopter that took him from the Vatican:

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.

Of the remaining $60,000, I’ve managed to raise only $20,000!

 Will you visit our secure online donation form and help?


•      Solid, Catholic content for Crisis Magazine: the very “rational arguments in the public square” that Pope Benedict called for to “help shape the values that will determine the future.”

•      Articles that will yield—and yield quickly—what Pope Benedict says we so sorely need: “an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture.”

•      Can you give $25, $50, $100, $250, or even $500 or $1,000? Please give, and please give generously.

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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Charlie McKinney


Charlie McKinney is the president of Crisis Magazine.

  • cloonfush

    I love my daily emails from Crisis. God bless you and I hope some of your reader open their wallets. You have earned our support.

  • hombre111

    Go with God, good Pope Emeritus. Thanks for doing what your predecessor did not have the guts or the imagination to do.

  • WOW,everything and everyone always asks for money….

    • Alecto

      It is a necessary thing to earn money, and in order to earn money, one must produce or provide something of value to others. I wonder if you have considered that your very existence is dependent upon others?

      Crisis produces something of value. The measure of that value is the funds it is able to raise. Also worth consideration is the idea that everything you have comes from God and you must account for your use of what He has given to you. In my case, I’ll just tell Him “I gave to Crisis.”

      • Crisiseditor

        God bless you Alecto. You nailed it. The greatest cultural and intellectual achievements of human society would not have been possible without the support of patrons who paid the artist, architect, philosopher, or scientist. The state, if it accomplishes anything of value, does so with revenues taken from taxpayers. Unless we want to return to bartering for our existence, a money economy is our only option and, quite frankly, has been responsible for enormous advances in how people live over the last 5 centuries. Alex sounds like a trust fund baby, living off the labor of others. He doesn’t understand that people need money to live. Some people just don’t live in the real world.

        • LarryCicero

          Thank you for a great publication. A check is on the way.

          • Crisiseditor

            Thank you. Crisis has many kind and generous readers who understand what is at stake.

      • You are absolutely right… and deserve every penny!

    • musicacre

      So, are you a spirit that lives on air?

      • no, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s… Who is Caesar and What is the Truth… The fact is that I wish I could fish a coin out, but we all need to make and pay money as honestly as possible… I think Crisis does just that…

  • I am glad you are showing me how to feel Catholic… wow, if I am like you I go to heaven… and I should give you my money… money saves souls…

    • Alecto

      Money properly invested, and distributed can indeed allow many activities to flourish so that souls are saved. Money is simply a tool. And a tool in the hands of a master craftsman can produce a beautiful thing.

      Do you think manna rains down from heaven to feed people? Do you know how many people are involved in the production of one pencil? Go read Milton Friedman and hope some of his wisdom about money can open your eyes to the truth about money. It is only the love of money which is the root of all evil, not money itself in its proper place as a tool. Do you think bread magically appears on your table? Or books that enlighten and change society magically appear? Your smug self righteous attitude is pitiable because almsgiving is a corporal work of mercy in the Catholic church.

    • John200

      You should give yourself a good slap. Not a love tap, a hard shot that nearly knocks you down….that explodes onto your cheek… Slapping saves souls…. or at least it might open your mind….

      Take it from me, you need it.

      • I would need a good slap after your boring and not very fear filling argument… Give yourself a slap and take your own medicine… then preach… looks like you need a thrashing…

        • John200

          I knew you couldn’t do it.

  • Tony

    Charlie — is that the Ethiopian from Acts, on the left side of the coat of arms, opposite the bear? The one whom Saint Philip taught to read the prophet Isaiah?

    Alex below is pretty smug. Does he want the people working at Crisis to go without food for their tables?

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      The Moor’s head is the ancient emblem of the Diocese of Freising, founded in the eighth century, which became a Metropolitan Archdiocese with the name of München und Freising in 1818, subsequent to the Concordat between Pius VII and King Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria (5 June 1817).

      Pope Benedict became Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977

      • Ford Oxaal

        Great article — and here’s the extra bonus info regarding the coat of arms.

  • Mahrt

    We have been blessed by a unique theologian as a pope, whose encyclicals will be read for generations to come. Will we ever see the one on Faith, even if simply published as the work of the emeritus pope.

  • Mort

    Does anyone really believe the God who called a man to the papacy changes his mind eight years later?

    • Alecto

      It’s difficult to understand that someone could place the best interests of any institution above his own lust for power given the abject corruption in our society; most especially in politicians. I do believe this pope is voluntarily surrendering it for the good of the Faithful.

      My own wish for next pope is a warrior pope, not some lovey-dovey peacenik. He best be prepared to go to war with the marshaling forces of Darkness, many of them right inside his own institution.

      • JCMR

        A warrior pope sounds ideal — but in a Modernist Rome dedicated to “soft talk” and “Eccumenism” and what not for 50 years can’t produce that TYPE of person. Never did. Ratzinger/B-16 was closest but still not “warrior” enough. That man is not there among the Cardinals humanly speaking.

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