Benedict achieved what few manage - to voluntarily give up power with grace
When Pope Benedict became pope, Fintan O’Toole happened to be standing in as a radio host on the day. He asked me to be available to comment when the new pope was announced.
I could not believe it was Joseph Ratzinger, about whom I had heard little that was good, and frankly, I was deeply disappointed. I had wanted a young, dynamic pope, preferably from the developing world.
Fintan, not unsurprisingly, assumed I would be delighted, and a gloriously awkward few minutes of radio ensued, as Fintan, with his innate courtesy, tried hard not to be unfair to the man, unaware that I, too, was desperately scrabbling for something nice to say.
Gloomily, I decided I had better read something by the new pontiff, and discovered that there was not a book of his to be had – all had sold out on the spot. So I wandered down to that little oasis, the Central Catholic Library in Merrion Square, and borrowed some of his books.
I started reading An Introduction to Christianity. After less than a dozen pages, I was hooked.
He began with a parable first told by Kierkegaard of a circus that has caught fire.
The manager sends a clown, already fully made up for the evening’s performance, into the village both to ask for help and to warn them that the fire is in danger of spreading.
But the people cannot take the clown seriously, and in fact the more he protests, the more they laugh, until eventually all are engulfed by the fire.
If taken as a parable regarding the role of the theologian, it is just a simple moral tale.
The costume, or the preconception attached to the costume, prevents the hearers from taking the message seriously, and the results are lethal for all.
But what utterly charmed me was that Joseph Ratzinger turns the parable upside down.
He says that it is not a good analogy, because of its premise that the clown is in full possession of the truth and and the villagers are ignorant.
Instead, he says, in moments of fragility, the believer can become aware “of the bottomless depths of the void into which one is also staring”.
Far from the Christian being a possessor of all truth, he suggests, perhaps the believer and unbeliever can meet in that space where doubt presents itself.
“Perhaps in precisely this way, doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication.”
It was an extraordinarily modern conception of faith, and deeply respectful of those who do not have faith.