"More and more do I understand the revulsion and fear that assailed Christ on the Mount of Olives when he saw all the horrors that he was now to overcome from within. That at the same time the disciples were able to sleep is, unfortunately, the situation that exists anew today and in which I too feel addressed." (Benedict XVI in his response to the abuse report by the Archdiocese of Munich in February 2022.)
Those who encounter life's impassabilities in their childhood and youth inevitably ask themselves, "Why me?" But with age comes the realisation that these misfortunes and personal tragedies are by no means isolated incidents of ill fate; on the contrary, they are the norm. Everyone carries their own cross, often hidden from the eyes of the world. And those who actually seem to get off lightly – well, their time may not yet have come. For many people, the very end of life holds both punishments and acts of mercy, and it is not for us to sum up prematurely.
When Pope John Paul II was dying, it was the first time that the global media took part in the fact that a Pope was going the way of all the earth. When he was elected in 1978, the media landscape was not yet technically ready, but at the time of his death in 2005, live satellite television images went around the world incessantly. The world became a witness to John Paul's dutiful fulfilment of his office till the very end. Death, which has otherwise been almost completely banished from the public life in our modern society, became tangible again, not as a mere statistic in one of the permanent wars, nor as an emotional manipulation to evoke a reaction with political ulterior motives. No, here, death met us again as the inevitability of life, which awaits us all and which we all have to face.
The way John Paul II dealt with his dying process touched countless people around the world. Many - including the author of these lines - were brought closer to the faith by it. Pope John Paul II showed us a way in which we too can hope to deal with the inevitable dignified when our time comes. For the suffering of the last years of his life, marked by the effects of his many illnesses, was and is an immanent part of life, part of the cross he and all of us have to bear.
It is significant that our society no longer wants to endure the sight of such a dying process. Public figures usually retreat into the private sphere long before death claims them. Certainly, this preserves their privacy, but it also spares the public that reminder of our transience, the memento mori that has been an integral part of human life for centuries, if not millennia. It is good for us to remember our transience.
When the conservative broke with tradition
Until a few years ago, the papacy was one of the last institutions that still nurtured this important idea. Popes died in office, it was a reminder that even the Vicar of Christ on earth is not immune from illness and death. At the same time, popes acted as role models for us with their dutiful fulfilment of Peter's office until their last breath. This tradition suffered an unprecedented rupture when Benedict XVI unexpectedly announced on 11 February 2013 that he would resign from his office barely two weeks later. As reasons for his decision, the then 85-year-old cited the certainty that his "powers, as a result of advancing age, are no longer suitable for him to exercise the Petrine ministry in an appropriate manner".
There were and still are justified doubts whether Benedict's state of health was the real reason behind his resignation. Speculations about this will not be nurtured here, but the fact remains that Benedict's choice of words pointed to severe health problems that suggested an imminent death. Even then there would still have been the question of why a conservative pope like Benedict XVI, of all people, did not follow the tradition of holding office until the end. However, the answer to these questions is not possible without - the quite justified - speculations, so it should not be the subject of further consideration here.
Benedict, however, did not die shortly after his resignation. When the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, then also 85 years old, announced his retirement from conducting, he closed his eyes forever exactly 3 months later. It is not an uncommon phenomenon among those people who pursue their vocation into old age. Their activity is their elixir of life, which gives them vitality into old age, but without which they wither away within a very short time. But this was not the case with Benedict; on the contrary, in February 2023, he would have "celebrated" his 10th anniversary of retirement.
One may assume that Benedict had not made the decision to resign easily, but it provoked disappointment among many of his followers - all the more so after his successor made it clear that the wind was now to blow from a completely different direction. After John Paul II had impressed even many of his critics with his sense of duty until death, Benedict's resignation, if one follows the official account, seemed as if the German Pope had "taken the easy way out" and wanted to ride into the sunset peacefully. This may be understandable on the proverbial "human level", but for kings (Queen Elizabeth II exemplified it this year) and popes, different rules apply for good reason.
A powerless decade at calvary
But Benedict did not die any time soon, and thus began his long way of the cross. Of course, he will have felt many regrets already before that, but perhaps it was the moment when lightning struck St Peter's on the day he announced his resignation that Benedict received the sign that, from now on, he would have to start his penance on earth by being condemned to becoming a silent witness to the progressive decline of the Church and the world. Indeed, these years were marked by a rapid transformation of society, a process aiming to turn the world upside down and which deliberately opposes all Christian principles of faith. Whether it was the dissolution of the sexes, the advancing abortion and euthanasia propaganda, the likewise advancing NGO-isation of the Church - all this must have deeply pained Benedict, who was attested a great mental presence until the very end.
Likewise, he had to watch passively as his commitment to the cultivation of the Old Mass, with which he gave numerous traditionalists in the Catholic Church a voice for the first time after the Second Vatican Council, was not only reversed under his successor Francis, but even directly opposed and defamed by the Chair of Peter. His closest companion during the last years of Benedict’s life, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, confirmed this in a first posthumous interview, in which he said that he believes „it broke Pope Benedict’s heart to read the Motu proprio Traditionis custodes“, as it closed the door on so many faithful Benedict had hoped to bring back into the fold.
Many traditional faith communities that only cautiously manifested themselves once again under Benedict were dissolved by his successor and scattered to the winds. Where before Benedict, there was still a hidden coexistence in silence, under the "tolerant" Francis, traditionalists turned almost into the Vatican’s enemy of the state.
The state of the now almost openly schismatic German Church must also have pained the emeritus pontiff, just as the overall treatment of Benedict in his homeland bears witness to the shamelessness and hatefulness of the German press and public against the Pope. Where once “Bild” ran the striking headline „We are Pope“ in a chauvinistic manner more befitting to a football tournament than a papal election, this bandwagon has long since given way to a character assassination campaign against Benedict, which in the end was motivated by no other reason than that the German Pope had a traditional understanding of faith.
This unfortunately common indecency to litter people with vendettas even until their deathbeds was also expressed in the abuse report from the Archdiocese of Munich that made the news in early 2022. Although the five years in which Benedict - then still as Joseph Ratzinger - was Archbishop of Munich proved to be some of the cleanest years compared to his predecessors and successors, the German press did not miss the opportunity to present this report as “Benedict's scandal”, just as his pontificate as a whole was increasingly portrayed as being marked only by abuse scandals. In the process, it was deliberately ignored that Benedict's pontificate did not so much produce new abuses as - on the contrary - expose and come to terms with previous ones for the first time, a work Benedict had already begun prior to his pontificate as Head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith.
Acceptance and following in the footsteps of Christ
Benedict himself does not seem to have evaded this cross of calumny, even though he must have been well aware of what was going on, as his letter quoted at the beginning clearly indicates. The eloquent theologian Benedict could have provided disarming answers to many of his opponents, but, following Christ, who also took up his cross, he mostly remained in seclusion and silence. God had granted him one more decade on earth in which he witnessed a decline that also made him aware of his own failings. As a young priest, he played a leading role in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, that Council which changed the Church so profoundly and whose sour fruits increasingly cast doubt on its success and even its validity. During his time as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as well as later as Pope, Benedict was obviously trying to readjust the direction in which Vatican II was being interpreted, but with his successor at the latest, these course corrections were all the more rigidly declared null and void.
Benedict must have felt remorse for his own mistakes in his last years, especially since he had to witness how their effects unfolded mercilessly, sometimes even decades later. His long life after his resignation could thus be considered as part of an early heavenly punishment, an opportunity for repentance that God Himself bestowed upon Benedict by not calling him to Himself for so long. Benedict rarely spoke publicly these last years, but between the lines of his often diplomatically chosen words shone his insight into the darkness of our days. In the letter quoted at the beginning, Benedict ended with a reflection on his own approaching end and the fears and hopes he associated with it:
"I will now soon stand before the final judge of my life. Even if, looking back on my long life, I have much cause for fright and fear, I am nevertheless of good cheer, because I firmly trust that the Lord is not only the just judge, but at the same time the friend and brother who has already suffered my inadequacies himself and is thus as judge also my advocate (paraclete). In view of the hour of judgement, the grace of being a Christian becomes clear to me. It gives me the acquaintance, yes, the friendship with the judge of my life and thus lets me confidently pass through the dark gate of death. What comes to my mind again and again is what John tells us at the beginning of his Apocalypse: He sees the Son of Man in all his greatness and falls down before him as if he were dead. But then he lays his hand upon him and says, "Fear not, it is I!... (cf. Rev 1:12 - 17)."
So we may hope that at the moment of his death, after previously uttering his last words „Lord, I love you“, Benedict found in Christ his expected Advocate and that, by means of the dutifully carried cross of his last years on earth, his place in heaven will be granted to him, a place he, and with him all Catholics, despite all human failings may hope for. Benedict XVI, rest in peace!
First published in German in: Das Kreuz Benedikts XVI. (tichyseinblick.de)