Benedict XVI: a misunderstood giant

Andres Beltramo Alvarez*

What makes an extraordinary man? What are the qualities that make it possible to qualify a “big” character, a “giant”? With the death of Pelé just a few days ago, these doubts were floating in the air, although rather confined to the sports field. Now they are presenting themselves again with the news of the death of Benedict XVI.

I warn you, I am not totally objective when writing these lines. Who can be when the Pope you speak of was an essential part of your journalistic practice for almost a decade? Who wants to be impartial when you can speak from the role of witness?

In the post-truth era, it is a true commonplace to attribute the adjective “great” to any famous person at the moment they pass away. But, in the case of Joseph Ratzinger, it is more than just a cliché.

He was a brave man. Not only because of the unexpected gesture with which he put an end to his pontificate but, above all, because of the many challenges he had to face throughout his eight years of Petrine ministry. He took charge of the situation in an otherwise stormy period for the Catholic Church, a mission he carried out without much fanfare. And he never shied away from his mission to offer a word of hope to a bewildered world.

He was an obedient man. He never wanted to be pope. “I prayed to God: please, don’t do this to me!” He confessed at the time of it, reliving his thoughts shortly before his pontifical election. He felt the votes in his favor in that 2005 Conclave as a true “guillotine” and, although he implored Heaven not to be chosen, shortly after he acknowledged: “This time (God) did not listen to me.” Once the initial shock was over, he set out to fully comply with that supernatural will that placed him at the apex of Christianity.

Benedict XVI was a man of his time. He enlightened entire generations of faithful Catholics -and not- with his pen, from his famous Introduction to Christianity even his bestseller Jesus of Nazareth. He trusted the human being so much that he decidedly bet on his intelligence. He was convinced that elevating thought was equivalent to elevating the soul, which is why he never stopped researching, writing, and publishing.

He was far from being a perfect man, he was aware of that. When the journalist Peter Seewald asked him what he would say to God when he meets him, he did not hesitate to answer: “I will implore you to indulge my miseries.” In the book last conversations He went further and recognized that he was oppressed by the conviction of not having done enough for others, of not having treated many well, of not having acted better in various situations, or of not having been fair.

He was a man who knew his own limits, but that did not prevent him from fulfilling the mission for which he was called. He came up against real scourges such as sexual abuse against minors by clergymen. He was the first pontiff to publicly ask for forgiveness, to meet privately with the victims in various countries, to take action against nefarious characters such as Marcial Maciel Degollado or Fernando Karadima. Despite this, he received the most cunning attacks, unfairly accused of concealing and complacent.

He addressed other serious problems such as opacity in Vatican finances, he became the first pope to approve a reform for transparency in the Holy See, which included the transformation of the IOR, the “Vatican bank”. Instead, he received the worst betrayal: that of his personal butler, Paolo Gabriele, who stole dozens of personal documents and leaked them to the press, triggering the scandal called “vatileaks.”

He tirelessly sought the unity of the Church and the union between peoples, visited dozens of countries, paid tribute to the victims in Auschwitz and prayed facing Mecca in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, something never before done by a pontiff. But they accused him of being anti-Muslim because of a quote in one of his speeches, taken out of context like many of his other public interventions.

He was misunderstood by many of his contemporaries, that’s clear. But what made him an extraordinary man? As a close observer he would like to leave this testimony: his ability to accomplish his mission with simplicity, despite everything. Regardless of the ingratitude, slander and betrayal that he suffered.

He knew how to remain faithful to his essence until the end and that made him a man capable of giving up all power when he had it in his hands. That was Benedict XVI: a truly free man, a true contradiction in a world where no one is willing to give up power. A freedom only product of a deep capacity to believe, of faith.

Here is his legacy, the one for which it is possible to consider him giant:

“I never perceived power as a position of strength, but always as a responsibility, as a heavy and burdensome task. A task that forces you to ask yourself every day: am I up to it? Also before the jubilant masses, I always knew that people were not praising this little man here, but what he represented. For this reason it was not difficult for me to resign.”

*Accredited correspondent to the Holy See between 2006 and 2019. He covered thirteen international apostolic trips of Pope Benedict XVI.

Twitter photo @FromLaFeMx

Benedict XVI: a misunderstood giant