Saint Ignatius High School

Remembering Pope Benedict XVI

Joseph Ratzinger, a shy and brilliant scholar, has had more impact on the Catholic Church since Vatican II, despite his tragic downfall. May we pray for Ratzinger in Heaven and those on earth who flee and continue to "fear the wolves."

As we continue to sift through the many commentaries on the life, career, and papacy of Benedict XVI, we are faced with a lot of people in the media who are, when it comes to Catholicism and the papacy, totally out of their depth. Focusing on easy dichotomies like conservative v. liberal and Benedict v. Francis doesn’t do much to tell the story of a complex and brilliant man who, despite himself, became the leader of over one billion Catholics worldwide.  

To begin to understand Joseph Ratzinger, you have to travel (intellectually, at least) to the Eternal City because it is in Rome, going as far back as the Second Vatican Council, that Fr. Ratzinger was propelled to ecclesiastical heights. And yet, that same city provided the path of his downfall, a path he would never have chosen for himself. 

Looking back over the last six decades of Ratzinger’s life, most of his life was spent in Rome. It is not difficult to conclude that this rather shy and introverted scholar has had more impact on the Catholic Church since Vatican II than any other person. Yet, this influence, arguably the most far-reaching of any modern churchman - including any of the popes of the past century - does not keep Benedict XVI from being, in the end, a tragic figure.

One of the best histories of the Council was by Fr. Ralph Wiltgen, S.V.D., and published only two years after the final documents of Vatican II. Any look back at Ratzinger at the Council would refer to at least the title, if not the text, of this historical narrative: The Rhine Flows into the Tiber. The reference in this title is to the forceful influence of the Germanic bishops (those from the lands associated with the Rhine: Germany, The Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland) over the proceedings at the Council taking place next to the Tiber.

Despite the fact that he was in his seventies and going blind, Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne was one of the most powerful men at the Council. As his personal theologian (peritus, “expert”), Frings chose the wunderkind of the German-speaking Catholic world, Joseph Ratzinger. Because of the importance of Frings to the Rhine contingent, this choice of peritus placed Ratzinger in the position of being one of the main architects of Vatican II.

Remaining behind the scenes, with Frings as the face and voice of his theology, suited Ratzinger but also brought him to the attention of one of the most important Council Fathers from behind the Iron Curtain, the young Archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyła. So impressed was Wojtyła with Ratzinger that as Pope John Paul II, he summoned the German scholar-bishop to Rome in 1981 to appoint him the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the most important theological position in the Church.

Still, the man behind the power, yet now more well known to the world - especially because of skirmishes with rogue theologians like fellow Rhine peritus Fr. Hans Küng - Ratzinger found himself in the firing line and was quickly given several unflattering nicknames like The Hammer, The Enforcer, and God’s Rottweiler.

Because of his role as the guarantor of the Catholic Faith, now-Cardinal Ratzinger built a reputation that preceded him into the conclave that elected him as Benedict XVI. As pope, his lack of John Paul II charisma was apparent, and the critics softened their views of the reluctant Vicar of Christ by renaming God’s Rottweiler as the German Shepherd.

During the homily delivered at his installation Mass on April 24, 2005, the new pope spoke with humility bordering on trepidation, especially when he uttered the now-famous words: 

“Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.”

His future decision to resign from the active ministry of the papal office was already there in the shadows at the beginning of his reign, and the many wolves who threatened the flock of Christ and the structure of the Church herself had, by 2013, taken their toll on the health and strength of the Holy Father.

What Benedict asked for at his opening Mass - prayer - was what he offered to his beloved Church from the time of his resignation until his death on the last day of 2022. Let us return the favor and pray for the saintly German Shepherd, the tragic pope who is now in the protective arms of the Good Shepherd, no longer pursued by the wolves.