The world—and to an extent the Church, at least since the 1960s—has been preoccupied with the person and his or her comfort. Pope Benedict XVI, for a short time, represented a break from this way of thinking. He gently demanded the individual reorient himself to God. Instead of taking the easy way of the world that asks nothing, Benedict reminded everyone that we needed Christ, even if accepting the Lord was a hard proposition that required sacrifice and rejecting the world. Benedict pushed back against a world with no objective standards and taught that there was a Standard. The world was not the end-all and be-all of existence; there was something better through the friendship of Jesus Christ.
At the same time, through his different initiatives and writings Benedict taught that Christ was always there to meet the person where he happened to be. We only had to turn to Christ and His Church.
The problem with our appreciating Benedict’s papacy is and has always been that much of the world and part of the Church refuses to accept him. For too many, he is “God’s Rottweiler”: he represents the Church’s harsh judgment, not Christ’s sweet mercy. The other issue that surrounds his papacy is that it falls between those of John Paul II and Francis, two men who enjoyed massive amounts of popularity in the world and the Church.
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In many ways, the work of Benedict is falling by the wayside because of the unfair caricature hoisted upon the man. (Look no further than the recent Netflix movie.) And, again, the larger-than-life personalities of John Paul II and Francis would outshine many popes in history. Along the same lines, sadly, some believe that supporting Francis is a means of rejecting Benedict. Simply put, people feel they can bypass Benedict as an inconsequential place-holder pope or they have allowed others to define him as a kind of villain. Yet Benedict needs to be remembered and his teachings preserved because of his work unifying Christians, his understanding of the world, and his Christocentric writings.
On April 18, 2005—the day before he was elected the 264th successor to Saint Peter—then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave a homily on the “dictatorship of relativism,” which succinctly diagnoses the ills of the modern world and points us to the cure. In it, he draws a clear line between the world that has decided to build a “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desire” and the Church which seeks Jesus Christ who “is the measure of true humanism” and whose friendship “opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.” Benedict presents two worlds to us, and we must choose either Christ and the real love that opens us to the Eternal One or the world and the self-love that makes us into false gods and leaves us battered by the winds. The world of today with its different falsehoods may provide temporary comfort for a time, but it will eventually drown us. True life resides only in Christ.
Along with his understanding of the world, Benedict’s writings make Jesus Christ accessible and remind us that He longs for our friendship. One of his best works in this regard is “Jesus of Nazareth,” which came out after his papal ascension. In the work, he gently rebukes modernists who attempt to strip Jesus of His divinity. The pope points out that modernists present Christ as a great prophet or teacher, relativizing or discarding those things that make Christ who He claims to be. Benedict reminds his readers, however, that the real Jesus of the Gospels was much more than a prophet; He was the Son of God, who came to save humankind and show the world the face of the Father. It is only through Jesus that we find our true selves in communion with God and each other. To put it another way, Benedict reminds us that Christ is unique and necessary to us, not just another wise man or prophet whom we can put to the side when following Him becomes uncomfortable.
Along with his teachings concerning the person of Christ, Benedict needs to be remembered fondly and emulated for the ways he reached out to Christians by expanding access to the Gregorian Mass and formally welcoming Anglicans and their traditions. In many ways, Benedict followed the maxim laid out by Augustine, “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Because of Benedict, the traditionalist Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter has experienced significant growth not only in the number of people attending their Masses but in the number of priests. In the U.S., that number has increased from 68 to 104 men in a decade. The Gregorian Mass is not just for those who love tradition. It serves to re-center how all of us understand the Mass of Paul VI and provides a road map to celebrate it better.
These initiatives have been picked up and expanded under Francis’s administration. For example, the Anglican ordinariate is encouraged not only to reach out to former Anglicans but anyone, even fallen-away Catholics who have yet to make their Confirmation. As far as continuing the outreach to traditional Catholics that was started by Benedict, Francis has gone further and granted the traditionalist group the Society of Saint Pius X (a group in irregular communion with the pope, depending on whom you ask) the right to celebrate marriages and to hear confessions.
Unfortunately, Benedict’s pontificate fell between two larger-than-life personalities who both embraced a public papacy projected across the world. From all appearances, Benedict was ill-suited to today’s office, unlike his predecessor and successor who seem to have thrived in it. He was a scholar better prepared to teach through the written word and not necessarily through the internet or television. Sadly, the world is more interested in sound bites or twitter posts than investing in the fruitful work required to understand the teachings of men like Benedict. The real danger to Benedict’s legacy is that many of us do not have the attention span to understand him. Too many have allowed others to define him, instead of studying him themselves.
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