by Gianni Valente
Rome (Agenzia Fides) - Now that the increasingly fragile figure of Joseph Ratzinger has left this earth, the Church is more alone on this earth. And Pope Francis is also more alone.
The unparalleled path of the great theologian who became Peter's Successor was also a path of spoliation. From the curious boldness of the young student who loved confronting the full breadth of questions posed by modernity to the conscience and condition of the baptized, up to the apostolic trials and sufferings of recent times, also made up of attacks, media trials, by means of accusations. The last few years, while the prayers of the poor accompanied him, made his gaze on the last things even more transparent.
In the years to come, even the caricatures - from the most banal to the bloodiest - that accompanied him in the seasons of his life, will fall like empty simulacra. It will perhaps take decades to fully perceive the innumerable nuances of the prophecy that he handed over to his traveling companions and to the whole world, in the many seasons of his long life – a boy who grew up under Nazism, seminarian, priest, theologian, professor, bishop, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope.
Meanwhile, already now some filaments of that warp seem to shine with greater intensity and relevance, in the present condition of the Church.
Joseph Ratzinger said throughout his life, all inscribed in the throbbing mystery of the Church, that the treasure, the precious pearl, is faith. He said that faith is not human effort or performance, and can be born by grace from the experience of an encounter: "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction" (Encyclical Deus caritas est, §1).
Joseph Ratzinger said that faith is revived not by ethical effort, by spiritual exercise or by cultural study, but by the gratuitous and unconditional repetition of Jesus' gestures of love in the situation of the days. "Grace" wrote Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica "creates faith not only when faith is born in a person, but for as long as faith lasts". Precisely that phrase of Doctor Angelicus was inserted - as if to indicate the heart of the whole Christian life - in a document attached to the Joint Declaration between Catholics and Lutherans on the doctrine of Justification, signed and approved in the years in which Joseph Ratziner was Prefect of the Congregation for the doctrine of the faith.
In a similar way, Joseph Ratzinger repeated throughout his life that the Church belongs to Christ, that she is always in need of being renewed by His grace ("semper reformanda"), and that every authentic ecclesial renewal takes place as a "return to the sources", return to the faith of the Apostles. That had been the luminous and liberating intuition of the Second Vatican Council, which he experienced and shared with enthusiasm when he participated as an expert theologian in that great ecclesial event: the discovery that the most fruitful path for the present and future of Christianity was the return to sources (ressourcement), to savor all the breadth of the Tradition, starting from the Fathers of the Church, and thus also free oneself from the misunderstanding that had passed off the codified historical forms of the ecclesiastical apparatuses of the last centuries as "Tradition".
Already in those years - as emerges from his reports from the Council - the future Pontiff had repeated that in the Church every authentic renewal "is simplification, not in the sense of reducing or minimizing, but in the sense of becoming simple, of addressing true simplicity of all that lives".
Joseph Ratzinger also said that the gift of faith is not an acquired possession to be mastered, and it can be lost. Even as Pope, he took note without repression of the fact that "in vast areas of the earth faith risks being extinguished, like a flame that is no longer fed " (speech to the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, January 27, 2012) . Long before, when he was not yet 25, in his brief pastoral experience in a parish in the center of Munich, he had already perceived an existential extraneousness to Christianity in many young people who also participated in ecclesial rites and initiatives. It was the face - which he described years later in an essay on the "new pagans" - of a new "intra-ecclesial paganism", which took root above all in the contexts in which ecclesial belonging was configured as "a political-cultural necessity", as "an a priori datum of our specifically Western existence".
Joseph Ratzinger looked in the face of the unprecedented loss of Christian memory that occurred with the new processes of de-Christianization. The one that sees many inhabitants of countries with an ancient Christian tradition look at Christianity as a "past that does not concern them". He also read the devastating news of the pedophilia of the clergy as a case of "persecution from within" reserved for the Church by the sins and miseries of the men of the Church themselves. And he acknowledged without pretense that this is the context in which the baptized are called today to confess their faith, live hope and practice charity.
Joseph Ratzinger had an intuition and said that the answer to this state of affairs is not, it cannot be just organizing resistance in the besieged fort. Regretting past times. If the Church possesses no other life than that of grace (Paul VI, Creed of the People of God, §19), then Christian hope can flourish even in times of exodus and exile. As a professor and theologian, speaking to the microphones of a German radio in 2019, Joseph Ratzinger had prefigured the time in which the Church would lose "a large part of her social privileges", would no longer be a "dominant social force" and would no longer be in able "to inhabit many of the buildings she had built in prosperity". But he had imagined the arrival of this state of affairs as a time of purification, which would have facilitated everyone in recognizing the total dependence on the grace of Christ of the "Church of the poor", freed from "sectarian narrow-mindedness" and "pompous stubbornness", in order to become a home "where to find life and hope beyond death".
Joseph Ratzinger said, even as Pope, that the Church is not saved by the Popes. And sometimes, in the Church, clerical triumphalisms of old and new coinage, ecclesial self-occupation and "permanent celebratory structures" (an expression he used as the events of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 approached) can end up hiding the advance of the desert. His very resignation from the office of Roman Pontiff suggested something important about the mystery of the Church.
In his last public address as Pope, Benedict XVI confessed that he had always perceived that on the boat of the Church "there is the Lord", even when he seems to be sleeping, and that "the boat of the Church is not mine, it is not ours, but it is His and does not let it sink; it is He who leads it, certainly also through the men he has chosen, because He wanted it that way". Also in the homily during the Mass for the beginning of his Petrine ministry, Benedict XVI had said: "I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone". Also on that occasion, he confessed that he did not want to present a true government program for the Church, because "my real programme of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord, to be guided by Him, so that He himself will lead the Church at this hour of our history".
The great theologian, who became Pope, accustomed to also attesting to the reasonableness of faith in academic disputes and in comparison with the gnosis of modernity, what was his only fortune and the treasure received throughout his life he wanted to confide to children. He did so on October 15, 2005, recounting the day of his first communion to the boys and girls of Rome who had recently received the Eucharist for the first time. He did not speak of the concepts found in books, of the knowledge acquired which nonetheless ignited in him and in his pupils a real theological "enthusiasm". "It was a sunny day", he recounted, recalling "the very beautiful church, the music", and the fullness of a "great joy, because Jesus had come to me". Then he added: "I promised the Lord: "I would like to always be with you" and I prayed to him: "But above all, be with me". And so I went on in life. Thanks be to God, the Lord has always taken me by the hand, he has guided me even in difficult situations". It was like this, until the end. "Because our life becomes good with Jesus by our side". (Agenzia Fides, 31/12/2022)
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