THE PAPPARAZZI HAVE ALREADY BAPTISED HIM PAPA RATZI. British tabloids couldn’t resist splurging with racist headlines of irreverent mockery, calling the new pope ‘God’s Rottweiler’, or the ‘panzerpope’. Even the usually responsible Independent devoted five pages on ‘the German’s coldly, calculated power play’ of setting the agenda for his own election, and other supposed cardinal sins. These included a photo of the young Ratzinger in the uniform of the Hitler Youth, the Nazi boy scouts – without mention of his defiant resignation from the organisation and desertion from the German army.
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith – better known in history as the Inquisition – the conservative, counterrevolutionary Josef Ratzinger, is in the minds of many a reactionary and disappointing choice to follow up John Paul II.
But those prepared to dig deeper into his writings, and to listen to people who know him and his work well, may be surprised to discover a patient, pastoral listener and an erudite speaker able to converse on a very broad range of topics. Christianity Today reported in 1998 how protestant and evangelical leaders had come away from two days of conversation with the cardinal, on the authority and interpretation of Scripture, profoundly impressed by the learning, candor and gentle civility of ‘one of the great Christian minds and spirits of our time.’
A Dutch bishop (a warm brother whose fellowship I have enjoyed over the past year on several occasions) told me over the weekend that in his opinion the new pope was an excellent choice, and warned me not to believe all I read in the papers. One of our senior YWAM leaders who has had personal contact with Ratzinger expressed that, while there may be positives and negatives in such a choice, he had personally been hoping for this outcome. Even during the memorial service for his predecessor, the cardinal sent a quiet signal to the world that he is not the inflexible and mean-spirited theologian popular opinion would suggest, as he communed with the Swiss Protestant pastor and founder of the ecumenical community in Taiz√©, Brother Roger Schutz.
Johann Christoph Arnold, one of the leaders of the Bruderhof, an Anabaptist movement persecuted in earlier days by the Catholic church, writes that he respects and admires ‘Brother Joseph’ whom he has personally known for over a decade. “With the many challenges that face him now‚Äîfrom poverty and AIDS in the developing world to sex scandals in the United States and the decline of faith in Europe and America, the church needs a man like Ratzinger. Clearly he is not popular in some circles: many prayed and hoped for someone more lenient, someone who would give in to their wishes and complaints. But in selecting Ratzinger the cardinals made a brave and bold choice, because the answers to the challenges and crises of our present age will not be found in compromise, but in returning to the simple and age-old truths of Jesus.”
As a non-Catholic, I know I will not share all the pope’s views on the church, the office of the pope and the sacraments, for example. But there are some areas I strongly agree with him on. He is a man with a vision for the future of Europe, such is rare in evangelical circles. His choice of the name Benedict XVI suggests he sees his task in the light of the patron saint of Europe, who established communities which became the building blocks of the new order emerging from the chaos after Rome fell apart.
All crises, he believes, are rooted in a crisis of faith, of whether we say yes or not to the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Commenting on whether or not a Europe that had turned it back on its Christian past could be united, he said: “I am convinced that Europe must not just be something economic [or] political; rather, it is in need of spiritual foundations. It is a historical fact that Europe is Christian, and that it has grown on the foundation of the Christian faith, which continues to be the foundation of the values for this continent, which in turn has influenced other continents.”
It was imperative to have a foundation of values, he continued. If we asked ourselves what that foundation was, we would realise that, beyond the confessions, there were no others outside the great values of the Christian faith. That was why the future Constitution of Europe should have mentioned the Christian foundations of Europe.
A morality that dispensed with God fragments, he warned.
The pope’s concern for the ‘torn nets’ of the church also resonates with me. In his inauguration homily this week he spoke of the images of the shepherd and of the fisherman as calls to unity: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must lead them too, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).
I might have a different view of the end goal of that unity, but do we non-Catholics feel the scandal of disunity deeply enough? The new pope quoted the story of the miraculous catch of 153 fish, concluding: ‘although there were so many, the net was not torn’ (John 21:11).
But, he added, our net has been torn! And so we should do all we can to pursue the path toward the unity. We should pray: “Do not allow your net to be torn, help us to be servants of unity!”
Torn nets – a graphic picture of disrupted relationships, congregations out of fellowship with each other, families not on speaking terms, leaders in unhealthy rivalry with each other, body parts working against rather than for each other. This is too often true for individuals, families, communities, nations and denominations. Net-work-building across Europe, across our nations, across our cities, is a task of repairing torn nets.
Benedict XVI is exercised by the disrepair of the nets.
Shouldn’t we be too?
Till next week,