On April 16, 2005, the staff of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith hosted a small party for the congregation’s prefect, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Cardinal Ratzinger turned seventy-eight that day; the conclave to choose a new pope would be sealed on April 18; so a combination birthday/bon voyage party seemed in order. It was, some of those present told me, an emotional moment; Cardinal Ratzinger’s way of handling his office had won him the intense loyalty of his subordinates and more than a few of them wanted to see him elected pope.
But if there was any wish farthest from Joseph Ratzinger’s mind as he marked his seventy-eighth birthday, it was that he might spend future birthdays in Rome. He and his older brother Georg, a priest and distinguished musician, had acquired a small property in their native Bavaria where they could keep house together. The cardinal had every intention of offering his resignation as prefect of CDF to the new pope, and every hope that John Paul II’s successor would do what John Paul had three times refused to do — accept that resignation.
The conclave had other ideas, of course. So Joseph Ratzinger will indeed spend his eightieth birthday in Rome, as Pope Benedict XVI.
When he stepped out onto the loggia of St. Peter’s on April 19, 2005, to meet and bless “the city and the world” according to the ancient tradition, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the new pontiff, with whom I had been in conversation since 1988 and for whom I felt gratitude, affection, and respect: one doesn’t wish impossible jobs on those one admires. But somebody has to do the impossible job of the papacy, and, on further reflection, I felt rather happy for Joseph Ratzinger, the man. His election as pope had, I thought, freed him to be himself. No longer would he stand in the giant shadow of John Paul the Great; no longer would he be confined to a disciplinary role. The world could now see, unfiltered, the man whom I had come to know over seventeen years: a Christian gentleman of remarkable intelligence, genuine modesty, spiritual depth — and good humor.
Some of that does, indeed, seem to have happened. While too much of the world media still has its Ratzingerian default positions set on “enforcer,” a lot of people have discovered that Joseph Ratzinger is a master catechist, able to distill the most difficult points of Christian doctrine into language and imagery that can be grasped by anyone. That, I am convinced, is why the crowds at Pope Benedict’s general audiences continue to be the largest in history: tired of the soul-withering allures of secularism and the thin gruel of “spirituality,” people are coming to be fed solid food, food for the journey, food that nourishes mind and spirit.
Thoughtful observers have also figured out that Joseph Ratzinger, by reason of his personal gifts and his office, can do what no president, prime minister, king, queen, chancellor, mullah, or secretary-general can do: put the really urgent questions on the global agenda in a way that can’t be ignored. While I wish that some of my journalistic friends would honor the Pope’s eightieth birthday by repeating, a few thousand times, “The Pope did not make a gaffe at Regensburg,” others have already figured that out: the September 2006 Regensburg Lecture put two grave problems on the world agenda — the danger of irrational faith, and the danger of a loss of faith in reason — in a way that no other world figure could have managed. If the later twenty-first century finds a way to engage genuine interreligious dialogue through a rediscovery of the arts of reason, the seeds for that flowering will be seen to have been planted in Regensburg.
Prior to his election as pope, Joseph Ratzinger worried that he was not a man of “governance, ”and the effects of his governance on the Church remain to be seen. That he has established himself as a master teacher for the world, as he enters his ninth decade, no one can now doubt.