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Holiness, not management.

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI brings to an end the era of the governance of the Church by members of the Vatican II generation.  Most of those who, like Ratzinger, were theological advisors at the Council have now gone to their eternal reward.

At the time of Ratzinger’s election to the papacy in 2005, his brother Georg grumbled that his younger brother was too old for the job and the cardinals should have chosen someone younger.  The two Ratzinger brothers had long desired to retire together and spend their time writing books and pursuing their musical interests.  They had bought a cottage for this purpose, and so one’s heart rather went out to the pair at that time.

Professor Tracey Rowland

Professor Tracey Rowland

However those of us who had followed John Paul II’s papacy closely could not imagine anyone other than Ratzinger succeeding Karol Wojtyła.  Ratzinger had been John Paul II’s number 1 supporter for the quarter-century pontificate.  They worked together in a brilliant partnership with Ratzinger doing the less popular doctrinal guard-dog work while the charismatic John Paul II handled the lion’s share of the diplomatic work.  Those who loved John Paul II felt reassured at the election of Ratzinger.  While liberals didn’t like him and referred to him as God’s Rottweiler, others regarded him as the Church’s German shepherd.  If a canine metaphor had to be used for this cat-loving Pope then the Austrian television character “Inspector Rex” was regarded by many as closer to the mark.

As the election of a Pole in 1978 had lifted Polish morale after 3 decades of Communist persecution, the election of a German as pope in 2005 helped to lift the morale of the German nation still recovering from the disgrace of the Nazi era.  Just as a Pole was a good choice of leader when Communism was still an international problem, the choice of a German made good sense in an era of relativism and an era of ecumenism.  If you want to understand relativism, the works of German philosophers are a good place to start, if you want to heal the wounds of the sixteenth century, then it helps to have some close experience of Lutheran cultures.

One interesting statistic of this papacy will be that of how many scholars from Protestant traditions came into full Communion with the Bishop of Rome because they felt as though they and Benedict XVI were on the same theological page.  He spoke their Christocentric dialect, he was at home in the territory of scripture scholarship and he understood that the Reformation had thrown open serious theological questions which were not adequately addressed at the Council of Trent.

Catholics who for several decades had endured poor liturgy also rejoiced at the election of Ratzinger because it was known that he cared a great deal about liturgical theology and was critical of all forms of philistinism.  If his liturgical ideas did not actually filter down to the parish level at least those suffering in the pews of suburban parishes could take consolation from the knowledge that they had a pope who shared their frustrations.

Love him or loathe him, everyone agreed that Ratzinger was a scholar’s scholar, a world-class professor.  As one of his interviewers once wrote: ‘he is not a bean-counter’ – not an ecclesial bureaucrat.

As far back as 1985 in The Ratzinger Report, Ratzinger observed that ‘the saints were all people of imagination, not functionaries of apparatuses’ and in his Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts (2006) he concluded that St. Paul was effective, ‘not because of brilliant rhetoric and sophisticated strategies, but rather because he exerted himself and left himself vulnerable in the service of the Gospel’.pope benedict being catholic

No one can say that he wasn’t a pope of imagination.   He went out on limbs to help groups of people who found themselves in some difficult ecclesial places.  The creation of the Anglican Ordinariate and the provision he made for the use of the Extraordinary Rite are two examples of his papal interventions to help groups who otherwise lacked powerful advocates.

One gets the impression that he reached the conclusion that a younger man was needed to deal with all those hundreds of management issues which flow into the papal office every day and that he can best serve the Church he loves by retiring, like St. Benedict, into a monastery and praying.

No one can say that he hasn’t, like St. Paul, ‘left himself vulnerable in the service of the Gospel’.

His successor will need the courage of a whole pride of lions, some substantial experience of ecclesial governance, and let’s hope, something of Ratzinger/Benedict’s intellectual gifts and non-bureaucratic imagination.  It would be terrible if the Cardinals decided to swing from a choice of a scholar’s scholar, to the choice of a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat.  They need a candidate who can handle both the governance and the intellectual issues.  The two are ultimately intertwined.