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.
In a few chapters, my image of the doctrinaire disciplinarian disappeared, and was replaced forever by the subtle, astute, wise teacher who presents ideas and allows the student to wrestle with them.
Ah, you might say, that was just early Ratzinger, before he became ultra-cautious and conservative. But it is in tune with everything he has written since. His first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is a meditation on the nature of love and service.
Benedict reaffirms the central place of justice for the poor, but also of love. “. . . Human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern.”
He also possesses a wry sense of humour.
Asked in 1997 if he believed the pope was directly selected by the Holy Spirit, he commented: “I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope . . . I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us . . . Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”
No doubt that wry sense of humour came in useful more than once when he became pope, as he was reduced by many media commentators to a set of stereotypes – homophobic, woman-hating, a shelterer of child abusers.
All were wildly inaccurate caricatures, but the last was particularly unjust, given that since 2002 he has been to the forefront of attempting to come to terms with this great scandal, and to root out what he termed the “filth” in the church.
Yet when people encountered him at closer quarters, he dispersed the negative stereotypes.
His visit to Britain in 2010 was a triumph. His speech in Westminster was typical of the motifs of this papacy – the relationship between faith, reason and modernity.
Perhaps Benedict was too much of an intellectual for this soundbite age. And yet, like all great teachers, perhaps he will teach best by his actions rather than his words.
There are few who can voluntarily renounce power, yet he has managed it with grace.
His resignation was surprising, innovative, flexible – all the things this writer signally failed to see on the day he became pope, and which became so obvious when I bothered to research what he wrote, said and did, rather than what others reported about him.