Pope Benedict XVI Can a Shy Theologian Transform into a Pope for the People?

Joseph Ratzinger has spent his entire life trying to ignore real life. He has been more successful at doing this in Rome than at home in Germany. Now the world's Catholics hope that this rigid guardian of the faith will transform himself into a good shepherd.
Pope Benedict XVI: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, appears on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican after being elected by the conclave of cardinals on April 19, 2005.

Pope Benedict XVI: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, appears on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican after being elected by the conclave of cardinals on April 19, 2005.

Foto: AFP

The tenant in apartment No. 8 was unusually quiet. He would occasionally run into his neighbors in the elevator and spend a few uncomfortably close minutes conversing about God and the world. He sometimes did play the piano -- Mozart, Bach, Palestrina -- a tad too loud.

Now it's become even quieter in apartment No. 8. Last week, the tenant moved out, taking up residence in a larger apartment diagonally across the way. He even took on a new name. Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, no longer resides at Piazza della Città Leonina No. 1.

Walter Kasper never found his neighbor's piano playing bothersome. At least that's what he says. Cardinals can be forgiving when it comes to each other's habits. And he doesn't even hold it against Ratzinger, his new boss, that he only made a brief appearance at his housewarming party.

"He lives a reticent life," says Cardinal Kasper, who lives in apartment No. 4. The shadow of a housekeeper wearing a nun's habit scurries past. "It's unlikely that he'll now rewrite every document he's ever published. But the true Joseph Ratzinger, Ratzinger as pope, will only become evident now."

Kasper, who's in charge of the ecumenical movement within the Vatican, had many theological differences with the old Ratzinger. But now, like so many others in Rome, he hopes to see a new and different man in Ratzinger as pope. For the past six years Kasper, an amiable man from southern Germany, has been living in the cardinals' residence, where The Sisters of Charity run the household. Benedict XVI is on his way over to pack his things. The heavz smell of meatballs hangs in the stairwell.

"As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," says Cardinal Kasper, "it was his job to defend the faith, that is, to set limits. He has completely different responsibilities, now that he is pope. His new job is to keep the church together and be conciliatory." Then he adds: "It is rather strange to suddenly see your colleague as pope."

Every day at precisely the same time, Joseph Ratzinger would leave the apartment, carrying his briefcase in his left hand, and walk diagonally across St. Peter's Square to his office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Palazzo del Sant'Uffizio.

The agency that succeeded Sancta Inquisito is small, consisting of only 40 employees, technicians and secretaries.

"He could write as if possessed, spending 12 or 13 hours without eating," says a priest with the "Archbrotherhood of the Immaculate Mother of Good in the Cemetery of the Germans and the Flemish," of which Ratzinger was also a member. "The sisters would put sandwiches on his desks, only to find hours later that they hadn't been touched."

Theologian extraordinaire

When it came to theology, no one else in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith could hold a candle to Ratzinger. He seemed to have read -- and retained -- everything. He would dictate 20 pages to his secretary, and there would be no mistakes, at least not grammatical mistakes.

But the content of Ratzinger's writings was a different matter. Many were irked by his dogmatic narrow-mindedness, his vehement rejection of those who would deviate from the basic principles of Catholic theology and morality, his condemnation of gays and lesbians as the embodiment of evil. These are all reasons why just about everyone in Rome is looking for signs that the principles of Joseph Ratzinger will not necessarily prevent Benedict XVI from transforming himself into a good shepherd of the Catholic Church.

Prelate Erwin Gatz, head of the college of priests known as "Collegio Teutonico," a tiny German oasis in the middle of the Palazzo del Sant'Uffizio, has a high opinion of the new pope: "When Ratzinger came to Rome in 1981, he lived with us at the College. I have to say that he was accessible, undemanding and very affable. Incidentally, one of the first things he did was to crown the Carnival prince, in tribute to the many Rhinelanders in our midst." It was the first Vatican reform of the later Benedict XVI.

At "Marte Dei" House in the German Bishops' Conference, halfway up Gianicolo Hill, residents are in the process of making Tuesday's motto their own: "Rejoice." There was apparently only one German cardinal who voted for Ratzinger in the first round of the election: Joachim Meisner, the ultraconservative Archbishop of Cologne, unpopular with many in his diocese. Apparently even church dignitaries have trouble with forgiveness when they, like the German cardinals in the dispute over church-funded pregnancy counseling, were humiliated before the entire world by the then keeper of the faith.

Cardinal Lehmann, chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, is not just Ratzinger's opposite when it comes to his disposition. For Lehmann, a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for ten years, the world is more than just a struggle between good and evil.

He has just had a hundred pages from one of Ratzinger's most recent books faxed to him. Ratzinger's books are now so sought-after that it's become difficult to obtain bound copies of any of them.

"He is a modest man and academically a great communicator," says Lehmann. "Before he was sent to Rome, they wanted him to promise to stop writing privately," says Lehmann, the Bishop of the German city of Mainz. "Ratzinger refused, and it was a successful choice. Writing is an essential part of life for Ratzinger."

Joseph Ratzinger has been tremendously prolific throughout his life, writing hundreds of theological documents and works, practically enough to fill a small library.

Ratzinger headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a little less than a quarter century. He was paid a monthly salary of €2,000 in a position that practically demanded that he be opinionated. "Of course, this put him in a position of constant exposure to the difficulties of the Church," says one of his German colleagues. "The extent to which faith and religious conviction have been eroded is certainly cause for melancholy."

This is the kind of language that's now being used to explain and justify the bitterness of Ratzinger's imagery, an imagery filled with metaphors of the church as a ship being battered by the stormy waves of liberalism and relativism. One colleague mentions encountering Ratzinger at a cocktail reception and discussing the time leading up to the conclave, as well as the conclave itself. Ratzinger, according to the colleague, said: "I can only hope that I emerge from this unscathed."

But things happened differently than expected.

Biography of a pope

A theology professor became pope. The son of a German policeman from the Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn is now the spiritual leader of more than 1 billion Catholics. The quiet tenant from apartment No. 8 is in the process of transforming himself -- into the most powerful man his small Bavarian home town has produced in a long time.

The Ratzingers' third child was born at 4:30 a.m. on April 16, 1927, the day before Easter Sunday. Money was in short supply in the Ratzinger family. Nevertheless, the two boys attended high school, their mother taking a second job as a cook to help pay for their education. Though poor, the family was proud of its rejection of Adolf Hitler and of Georg Ratzinger, an uncle of Joseph Ratzinger's father who, as a pastor and a member of the Reichstag, fought for the rights of German farmers.

When Hitler came to power, Ratzinger's father said: "There will be war soon, so we need a house." The family soon moved into a primitive old farm house in the small town of Hufschlag bei Traunstein, where water had to be fetched from the well.

The Ratzingers were god-fearing Bavarian Catholics, but they were also cheerful and warm-hearted people. Theirs was the Catholicism of Baroque altar images.

When he was only in second grade, Joseph Ratzinger's parents bought their youngest son a missal -- the Mass book priests use at the altar. Ratzinger later said that for him religion became a "rational adventure."

His school registered Ratzinger with the Hitler Youth, but he rarely attended meetings. He was eventually drafted and sent to Munich. As an anti-aircraft auxiliary, he was assigned to a measuring division, where his job was to collect data. He experienced the end of the war in a P.O.W. camp near Ulm.

Ratzinger already began drawing attention to himself while studying theology after the war. "He managed to make things shine again, to introduce a new tone," says one fellow student. In a tribute to Ratzinger, Professor Wolfgang Beinert praised him for the "classic radiance" of his language.

Armed with such pedigrees and expectations, he became an official theological advisor to the Second Vatican Council. At the time, Ratzinger complained that the Church was "reined in too tightly, subject to too many regulations, many of which contributed to the abandonment of the century of skepticism instead of helping it achieve redemption." He was called the "teen-ager of the Council."

At 30, Ratzinger became a professor of fundamental theology, first in Bonn and later in Muenster and Tuebingen.

"He was greatly affected by his experience in Tuebingen, which somehow shaped his way of thinking and evaluating the situation," says Walter Kasper.

After the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger, along with Hans Kueng and Karl Rahner, was considered a reformer within the Church. Kueng, a friend, had brought him to Tuebingen in 1966, where Ratzinger, by then a highly promising young professor with a priest's collar and a high-pitched voice, assumed the chair for the teaching of fundamental theology and delivered lectures on Logos speculation in the Middle Ages.

But his students interrupted his lectures, shouting him down and demanding that he discuss Vietnam. At some point he heard his own students utter the scandalous words: "Jesus be damned." Horrified, he left Tuebingen for a position at the more conservative and tranquil University of Regensburg.

Ever since his experiences in the 1960s, the term "Marxism" has carried with it images of reckless, revolutionary behavior for Ratzinger. In a 1984 interview with Der SPIEGEL, he said that in Tuebingen's lecture halls it became clear to him "that our objectives during the Council had been reversed." Later he even spoke of the "demon of the Council," or what he referred to as the "Church's non-critical opening up to the world and the spirit of the times."

He was always a shy person, but his experiences in Tuebingen also made him anxious for the Church. As one of his fellow members of the Collegio Teutonico recalls, "he was driven by the idea of leading the Church, and felt that he had to rise within the hierarchy to achieve his goal."

Ratzinger wrote his doctoral thesis on St. Augustine, a father of the Church who believed that Christ wanders aimlessly through the world as a stranger, in a constant and futile effort to achieve a theocracy St. Augustine called the "City of God." "St. Augustine's ideas certainly played an important role in determining his way of thinking," says Cardinal Kasper, "the idea that the world represents a constant struggle between theocracy and society."

He has inherited St. Augustine's theological pessimism, his conviction that there is no real future when it comes to earthly matters. In this world view, neither history nor nature can offer any hope or expectation, and nothing good can be expected to transpire in the world beyond the walls of the Church and the Vatican, especially when that world is represented by shabbily dressed, unshaven students calling for revolution in the name of Karl Marx and Jesus Christ.

In this world view, if there is a true life within this false life, it only exists within the Church. The high walls of the Vatican offer protection, and anyone who attempts to shake its foundations can only be pitied.

"The Church is a church that has dipped into the world, with all its temptations," Ratzinger said, commenting on the scandals involving pedophile priests in the United States. According to Ratzinger, "a series of misunderstandings" in the wake of the Council have led people to believe that it is sufficient "to identify with the behavioral patterns of the rest of the world."

In speaking privately about the young people who celebrated John Paul II at the World Youth Day, only to leave fields strewn with used condoms, Ratzinger said: "We don't need these young people." He has no interest in reviving the church at any cost. He is a fanatic of truth. And he knows who possesses that truth: The Catholic Church is God's appointed guardian of the absolute moral truth revealed to it, once and for all, by Jesus Christ, and it will continue to be the unwaveringly authentic interpreter of this truth until the end of days.

The kind of thinking that holds that truth only reveals itself to human beings, even the faithful, in bits and pieces, and that truth can take different shapes in time and space, depending on cultures and tradition, is foreign to Ratzinger.

In 1977, when he was Archbishop of Munich, he had the episcopal motto "Cooperatores veritatis" -- worker of truth -- embroidered onto his shoulder shawl. At a time when every German university was imbued with the cult of post-structuralism, the infinite science of ever-diminishing truth, Ratzinger said: There is only one truth, even if "modern man believes it to be undemocratic and intolerant."

Summoned to Rome In 1981, Pope John Paul II summoned Ratzinger to Rome to serve as supreme guardian of the faith. In 1983, at the pope's request, Ratzinger dedicated himself to the Church's plan to recapture Latin America. He ridiculed liberation theologian Leonardo Boff and tried to force Peru's bishops to resign. It will be "difficult to love this pope," says Boff, but he too hopes that Ratzinger will "think more about humanity than the Church" when he ascends to the papacy.

Ratzinger is a crusader, shy in demeanor but iron-fisted in his positions. He has never shied away from any confrontation with modernity, for he believes that this is the only approach to taking modernity seriously.

Technology, science and relativism. These are the columns of modernity -- and Ratzinger's chief foes. He is not, however, fighting blindly or unconditionally.

Before the funeral ceremony for John Paul, Ratzinger is said to have told US President George W. Bush: "If you wish to pray, then pray." Bush's security people had asked that St. Peter's Cathedral be cleared so that Bush could pray in private. Ratzinger turned down their request.

Even his last sermon before the conclave was harsh and didactic. As in the past, man is delegated to the sidelines in Ratzinger's perspective. And as he had done so many times before -- and perhaps for the last time? -- he claimed that Jesus died for the truth, not for our sins. Indeed, one of the Church's main functions is to continue repeating this message, always in a fresh and timely manner.

It was everything but a campaign speech. But it had its effect. The man who irreverent critics have dubbed the "pope's Rottweiler" was voted into the office of the good shepherd by a true plebiscite. To the delight of Ratzinger's supporters, 100 of the 115 cardinals voted for him.

But can someone who in the past has even argued for the expansion of papal infallibility to other doctrines, including his own edicts, back far enough away from his positions to be able to truly assume this role? When asked about gaps in his life, Ratzinger said: "One cannot remain stationary in life; one must continue to develop."

Now he has no other choice. He must change. Until now, he has treated applause among Christians as an indication of insufficient seriousness of faith. At his enthronement last Sunday, he faced half a million people, and he was the one for whom they applauded.

Ratzinger had a habit of folding his hands and looking at the ground while speaking. Every gesture suggested the weary, streetwise approach of Dostoyevsky's grand inquisitor in "The Brothers Karamazov," who visits Jesus in jail and says: I can't let you out, because you make people crazy.

He speaks in a hovering, high-pitched, syncopating, almost sing-song voice. Even when he speaks Latin, it sounds as if he were telling a funny story. Indeed, his voice sounds more like that of an Augsburg puppeteer than that of the Lord.

"You can dispense with the holiness."

He must change. Until now, Joseph Ratzinger's words were his actions. But now he must serve as the physical embodiment of the Catholic Church, a church more dependent on images than any other. But Ratzinger has always detested physicality.

"It was a shock to see him emerging from the so-called Room of Tears in his new robes," says one of the German cardinals. "For all his white hair, the white pileolus was hardly visible. Was he even wearing the cap?" Joachim Meisner, the Archbishop of Cologne, was speechless, and another cardinal wasn't sure how to address the new pope at first: "Holy Father, dear Joseph..." - "You can dispense with the holiness," said Benedict XVI. The metamorphosis had already begun.

At first, the man standing on the portico of St. Peter's Cathedral moved nothing but his eyes, the eyes of a scholar accustomed to letters, not the eyes of the many thousands of people facing him in St. Peter's Square.

He began by saying "cari fratelli e sorelle," in his strange voice, the unaccustomed stole embroidered with images of St. Peter lying on his shoulders like a yoke. At first, he seemed about to make the kind of gesture one would be more likely to see in stadiums and at political conventions. Benedict XVI raised his arms as if to triumphantly bring his hands together over his head. Then he realized what he was about to do and stretched out his arms in the gesture of a pope.

On Thursday afternoon, the Piazza della Città Leonina will be closed to traffic, except for a vehicle with a license plate that reads "SCV 1." The pope mobile. Benedict XVI still seems uncomfortable in his new clothes. His gestures seem mechanical, his body is rigid, and he'll have to become as accustomed to smiling as to signing a new name. He runs his hand over the head of a young girl, lifts his arms, walks to the small elevator one last time and takes it to the fourth floor. The piano is going with the pope.

Souvenir shops are selling tablets with the names of his predecessors. The last Bavarian to sit on the throne of St. Peter was Poppo von Brixen, who called himself Damasus II and, in 1048, died of a fever after only a few weeks in office. The papacy of Benedict XV was also brief.

Joseph Ratzinger has had two minor strokes in the past few years. His sister died of a stroke, as did his father. He doesn't have a lot of time. He wanted creative license. He has it now. And all that's above him now is heaven. "John XXII was also elected as a transitional pope," say many of Ratzinger's colleagues, "but think of how much he accomplished in his few years in office."

Ratzinger is said to have a calm relationship with age and the time we are given. "Besides, he has almost overwhelming recognition of what the Curia can and cannot do. He can begin working immediately."

The German pope

Last week Benedict XVI reconfirmed the responsibilities of all Curia cardinals -- except his own. His former office in the Palazzo del Sant'Uffizio is being cleared. The person Benedict XVI will appoint to succeed Joseph Ratzinger as guardian of the faith will provide a first indication of the foundation on which the principle of hope is built for many Catholics.

According to officials in Rome, Ratzinger was writing treatises on ecumenical issues just before being elected pope. He had apparently written a paper arguing that those who remarried after a "faultless divorce" should be allowed to receive the sacraments again.

This would signal a positive return to the old, liberal positions of a younger Ratzinger. But is such a rethinking of positions even conceivable in a man who, in 1994, unambiguously decreed that there could be no exceptions to the denial of the Eucharist to those who remarried?

"He will certainly be thinking about the structure of the synod," says one German cardinal. "It's been proposed that a sort of senate be created to support the pope, a cabinet of constantly changing bishops." This is precisely what the official Council theologian Ratzinger was calling for 40 years ago, at the Second Vatican Council.

Walter Kasper sits in his office in apartment No. 4 in the cardinals' residence on Città Leonina. He's thinking about what to wear to the papal reception on Saturday: a red cassock with a white overcoat or his black cassock with the red buttons? The instructions were vague, as always. The Catholic Church doesn't change that quickly.

Kasper says: "The new pope will certainly bring historic processes into motion. They used to say: A German pope? Impossible. But now it's acceptable, and we Germans, of all people, should celebrate. At the very least, one should be fair and give such a pope a chance."

The colossal event has turned many things upside-down. The world has a German pope, and an apartment is available in Walter Kasper's building.

By Thomas Hüetlin, Ulrich Schwarz, Alexander Smoltczyk and Peter Wensierski

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