“Benedict XVI had the culture of an associate and the piety of a first communicant”

Author of a biography of Benoît XVI, Nicolas Diat admires the intellectual who did not let the times dictate its law to the Church.

This Saturday, December 31, at 9:34 a.m., Benedict XVI passed away in his room in the small monastery where he lived in the heart of the Vatican gardens. His successor was the first to know. And he left immediately to collect himself in front of the remains.

In April 2005, the day of his election, Joseph Ratzinger had chosen the name of his reign, in order to pay homage to Saint Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine order, whose motto was “ora et labora”. He also wanted to pay homage to his predecessor Benedict XV, who was consumed during the First World War, in order to get poor Europe out of the murderous conflict in which it found itself.

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During the Te Deum at St. Peter’s Basilica the very evening of the Pope Emeritus’ death, Francis spoke of Benedict XVI saying he was “such a noble person.” Then he had these moving words: “God alone knows the value and the strength of his intercession, of his sacrifices offered for the good of the Church.”

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The days of mourning were beginning and, under the dome, the words of the hymn “Adeste fideles”, “run up faithful”, joyful and full of energy, were paradoxical…

Benedict XVI was a gentle, humble man of disarming simplicity

Benedict XVI was a gentle, humble man of disarming simplicity. His blue gaze spoke of the childhood spirit he had always retained, and the immense intellectual acuity of the professor of theology. At the dawn of his pontificate, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne, one of his best friends, confided to a French monk: “He is intelligent like twelve professors, and pious like a first communicant.”

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In the one-and-a-half-page letter, written in German, and dated February 6, 2022, he spoke candidly of his own demise: “Soon I will find myself before the final judge of my life. Although, looking back on my long life, I may have great reason to fear and tremble, I am nevertheless in good spirits, for I firmly believe that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and the brother who himself has already suffered for my faults, and is therefore also my advocate, my Paraclete. In light of the hour of judgment, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. He grants me knowledge, and even friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass through the dark door of death.

A filial love for his dear Bavaria

His legacy can never be dissociated from his filial love for his dear Bavaria, land of high Catholic tradition, and Gregorian liturgies. There, in Tübingen or Regensburg, the professor of fundamental theology already placed the dialogue between faith and reason at the heart of his teaching.

On vacation in Bressanone in the Tyrol, Italy, in August 2003.

© Publifoto/ABACA

These were the best years of his life. Because he didn’t want to go to Rome. John Paul II had to put all his strength into convincing him to join him. He was for twenty-three long years his most faithful collaborator, as prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith.

“We only reform the Church by suffering for her.” The sentence of Georges Bernanos in “The Predestined” was so close to what Benedict XVI thought of the exercise of power in the Church that I had chosen these words to open my biography, “The man who did not want to be Pope”.

Benedict XVI had spoken to France of the monks saying, “Behind the provisional, they were looking for the definitive.”

On September 1, 2013, on the occasion of the annual meeting of his former students, the famous Ratzinger Schülerkreis, the former pope declared: “In history, everyone seeks the right place: on the stage of life, everyone wants find his place. But the question is: which place is right and which is right? The first place can quickly become a very bad place, and that not only at the Last Judgment but already on earth.

Five years earlier, in September 2008, in his most beautiful speech, at the Bernardine College, Benedict XVI had spoken to France about the monks, saying: “Behind the provisional, they were looking for the definitive.”

On September 12, 2008, at the Collège des Bernardins, in Paris

On September 12, 2008, at the Collège des Bernardins, in Paris

SIPA / © SIPA

Command did not interest him. He was not a leader but a contemplative. His theological, literary and intellectual work is of a rare density. Such was the drama of Joseph Ratzinger: the refusal of facilities, good intentions, compromises, arrangements crosses his existence, contrary to the fleeting present and perishable ready-to-wear, the pretensions of the strong spirit or pettiness of “minus habens”.

In “The Christian faith yesterday and today”, written in 1968, Joseph Ratzinger underlined that, from its origin, Christianity declared itself “for the god of the philosophers against the God of the religions”. This research, following Saint Augustine, fascinated him more than anything.

For him, when the supernatural disappears, the natural is irreparably altered.

In Benedict XVI, there was no contempt for the things of this world. This man neither knew nor wanted to defend himself. He refused ad hominem attacks. The effacement of the Ratzinguerian ego was elegance and politeness.

In the mind of this pedagogue, remaining in the depths of his heart a Benedictine, the disappearance of the question of God was a tragedy with endless consequences. In this sense, he was one of the thinkers who made the most precise diagnosis of the crisis of the European question; for him, when the supernatural comes to disappear, the natural is irremediably altered.

A pope who, today, would not be the subject of criticism would fail in his duty vis-à-vis this time

Joseph Ratzinger

Joseph Ratzinger was fascinated by the silent grandeur, ancient liturgy and harsh humility of the Carthusian order. One Sunday in October 2011, he had visited the monks of the Charterhouse where Saint Bruno passed away in 1101. That day, his words were a mysterious anticipation of the evening of his own existence: “Abandon fleeting realities and seek to seize the eternal. In this expression of the letter that your founder addressed to the provost of Reims, Rodolphe, is contained the heart of your spirituality: the strong desire to enter into union of life with God, abandoning everything else, everything that prevents this communion and letting oneself be seized by the immense love of God in order to live only from this love.”

Joseph Ratzinger, with the Cardinal of Munich in May 1977.

Joseph Ratzinger, ordained Cardinal of Munich in May 1977.

DPA/ABACA / © DPA/ABACA

Many years earlier, in August 1978, the young Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger had composed an unforgettable tribute to the successor of John XXIII, who had just passed away. In the cathedral of Munich, his so characteristic shy and strong voice rose: “A pope who, today, would not be the object of criticism, would fail in his duty vis-à-vis this time. Paul VI resisted telecracy and opinion polls, the two current dictatorial powers. He was able to do this because he did not take success and approval as parameters, but rather conscience, which is measured by truth, by faith.

It’s the others who have changed, not me!

With his German compatriots, the division was recorded in 1985 when his book “Entretien sur la foi” was published. He spoke of the “unleashing, within the Church, of latent, aggressive and centrifugal forces; and abroad, of the impact of a cultural revolution in the West: the affirmation of a superior middle class, the new middle class of the tertiary sector, with its liberal-radical ideology of the individualist, rationalist, hedonist type”.

In the form of a joke, he had also lectured the journalist Vittorio Messori: “It is the others who have changed, not me!” His concern for the future of German Catholicism was deep. In the spiritual testament, signed on August 29, 2006, and revealed on the evening of his death, he remained precise: “I thank the inhabitants of my homeland for having always allowed me to experience the beauty of faith. I pray for this, for our country to remain a land of faith and pray to you: dear compatriots, do not let yourselves be diverted from the faith.”

With Benedict XVI, it is still fair to say: “Omnia munda mundis”, everything is pure for the pure in heart

Pope Francis knew everything. His courage in the face of sex scandals, financial excesses, uncontrolled curial ambitions. His great emotion at the announcement of the disappearance did not surprise those who know his sincere admiration for the former pope. The words of the testament allow no contradiction: “For sixty years I have accompanied the path of theology, in particular that of biblical studies, and I have seen the collapse, over the generations, of theses which seemed unshakeable and which turned out to be mere hypotheses: the liberal generation (Harnack, Jülicher, etc.), the existentialist generation (Bultmann, etc.), the Marxist generation. I have seen and I see how, in the tangle of assumptions, the reason for faith has emerged and is emerging again.” With Benedict XVI, it is even more accurate to say: “Omnia munda mundis”, everything is pure for pure hearts.

Benedict XVI died when the world was watching the December 31 festivities

Shouldn’t the last word go to this religious who was so close to him without ever wanting to appear in the light: “Pope Benedict’s heritage? In our nihilistic, frivolous and permissive age, greatness and simplicity can still go hand in hand because they are both a reflection of God. Of God incarnated in a child on Christmas Eve.” He adds, “Now he is free.” Benedict XVI died when the eyes of the world were on the December 31 festivities. Which looks terribly like him. It was sometimes whispered in the Vatican that he would have liked to die without anyone knowing. In monastic life, prayer and work, music and silence, solitude and intercession are irrevocably united in a perfection which is the essence of monastic commitment. Benedict XVI’s admiration for these hidden men, who continually seek God, was constant.

“Benedict XVI had the culture of an associate and the piety of a first communicant”