Approximately three weeks ago, on April 2, Pope John Paul II passed away. After weeks of mourning, the world now has a new Pope, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, the previously well-known Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany.
While some rejoice and others bemoan Cardinal Ratzinger's elevation to the papacy, we must all keep in mind that the selection of a new pope does not take place on or according to the rules of the U.S. political stage. We may be tempted to think in these terms after our recent presidential election, to the point that the November election's key issues have somehow determined what aspects of Pope Benedict XVI's theology are highlighted and deemed central.
One notes that the same issues appear in every paper and on every television news broadcast. These issues, however, are not of his, or any Pope's making. Setting aside our political notions and suspending whatever disbelief we may have, let us imagine that God has indeed called Joseph Ratzinger to be Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Ratzinger has been called by God to guard Tradition as a pastor, not as a dogmatic theologian. While dogma and the Tradition therein is important and was central to his previous role as guardian of theology, he is now a Holy Father who guards his flock as a shepherd. As Pope, he is a shepherd to over one billion faithful. As St. Francis de Sales would say, a pastor must be like a roaring lion at the pulpit but like a meek and humble lamb in the confessional as people come to confess their personal sins. The Pope must take all the people of his flock into consideration. So, the problems of a woman in Nairobi are quite unlike the problems of a woman in Chicago.
Cardinal Ratzinger has been framed a certain way by the media outlets, citing a number of key issues common to our own political reality. As University of Chicago students, however, we are expected to be critical. Let us read what he has written in its entirety so as to try to begin to understand him as thoughtfully as he has approached his own scholarship and Faith. Much of what he has written can be found on www.vatican.va and in our very own Regenstein Library.
I have had the opportunity to read a number of Joseph Ratzinger's works from his years as a theologian and as a Cardinal. Given the limits of this article, I shall focus on his last two homilies, the one immediately before the Conclave as Cardinal Ratzinger and the one after his elevation to the throne of St. Peter as His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.
As Cardinal Ratzinger entered the Conclave as Dean of the College of Cardinals, he stressed the importance of clarity in understanding Divine Revelation so as to grow in the fullness of Christ. One can only grow, after all, if one is focused. Vocation is concentration as Pascal, Sertillanges, and others remind us. Such concentration in one's call, one's specialization as we would say in Academia, can but only be appreciated here at the University of Chicago.
In the Church, such a concentration is indeed the person of Jesus Christ, whom we believe reveals to us God the Father and His Will through Scripture and Living Tradition. Our concern is supernatural and natural, for Jesus Christ united those two aspects in his very person. As Cardinal Ratzinger finished his homily before entering the Conclave, he stressed that, above all, the only human thing that remains in eternity is the human soul, not our books or our buildings. He stressed that we have received a Faith which must be shared with others for their eternal well-being, giving to others a fruit that remains. This is a grave responsibility.
The spiritual reality with which believers are dealing is one which Joseph Ratzinger stressed in his first homily as Pope Benedict XVI. His approach is pastoral, with dogma as a guidepost. His Holiness seeks to reach out to the world, while being true to the articles of Faith of the Roman Catholic Church. What else can we expect from a pope?