Remembering Benedict XVI: A champion of tradition and orthodoxy | Albert Bikaj
I received the news about Pope Benedict XVI’s passing bittersweet. Retrospectively, it reminded me of the emotions when I thought about his abdication. Yet, this time is a bit much more different. At the same time, I felt deep sorrow and gratitude. Because I’m convinced that this is not a farewell, it is not the end, but rather a new everlasting beginning.
Despite being overwhelmed by strong emotions I’ve been trying to write some adequate words regarding His Holiness and share a brief, modest and personal testimony, a reflection in a sign of gratitude and affection.
Among the first thoughts that I had, took me back to 2005 when Benedict XVI was elected Pope, back then, I must have been about 9 years old. As a child, I didn’t understand much, but I vividly remember two things. The vile comments made by certain media, and people influenced by them, describe him as “an old and harsh man”.
On the other side my mother, a devout Catholic, who admired him, would often listen to the Radio Maria and pray every midnight rosary in Latin led by Pope Benedict XVI.
I’d join her from time to time despite not understanding the language.
She would often emphasize how powerful she finds praying in Latin.
As I was growing up and being educated in an ideological environment, prayer seemed altogether nonsensical; religion for me was a relic of the past, just like Latin – a dead language. I had become a typical indoctrinated adolescent whose faith was replaced by ideologies, and even anti-Catholicism.
Later, as a college student, I encountered a much wider intellectual horizon and literature, which gradually challenged my biased anti-religious sentiment. Two of my university mentors introduced me to Kenneth Clark and G. K. Chesterton; I even remember one of them praising the German Pope’s theology and his liturgical reform.
In particular, being aware of my Catholic heritage, he emphasised a few times the Traditional Latin Mass which he attended often in Croatia. Indeed, I had not regained my faith; I was still a lapsed Catholic. But it kindled my interest due to its influence throughout the history of European civilisation. Particularly I got fascinated by the medieval intellectual history which later I decided to pursue coincidentally in the Capital of Croatia, Zagreb – a marvellous city of medieval and Habsburg architecture known for its iconic neo-gothic cathedral.
It was the first thing I visited when I arrived in the town; next to it I noticed a local Catholic bookstore, where among many other books I bought Joseph Ratzinger’s “On conscience: Two Essays”. I read it immediately; his arguments, profound in thought and eloquent in style fascinated me. It challenged my view on God, human nature and natural law.
I wanted to read more from his great opus, so I kept buying his books, which I’d read during my lunch breaks, travelling and holidays.
I began to attend the Mass again, and while I admire the reverent Ordinary Form I wasn't impressed much by the modernised one; celebration, vestments and emotionalist guitar music reminded me of everything but Catholicism. I was looking for something more. One day, during the Latin course we were assigned to transcript and translate a small Biblical passage traditionally used on Easter day. Suddenly, as I was reading it reminded me of the Latin Mass that my professor had mentioned to me.
Once I finished the classes, I decided to research where I could attend the Extraordinary Form. I'll never forget that day. It was All Saint's Day of 2017 when I spontaneously attended the Traditional Latin Mass for the first time. It fascinated me and made me feel like a curious child, despite the fact that in the beginning, I didn't understand much, but I sure couldn't feel indifferent.
I was struck by its profound reverence and sacred beauty. I thought now I fully understand St. Gregory the Great's saying that 'the heavens open and multitudes of angels come to assist in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass'. Tradition is beautiful! It was a life-changing experience which inspired me to explore Catholicism through Pope Benedict XVI's guidance. The more I learned about him, the more I read and watched his liturgies, and the more fascinated I got with him as an intellectual, theologian and Pope.
Simply said, he started becoming very dear to me.
My fondness that grew towards him was quite unusual, it resembled the one I felt for my beloved late grandfather. Such an affection, that during our conversations within my circle of Ratzingerian friends, I referred to him familiarly as ‘Papa Benny’.
Though, unfortunately, I didn't have the privilege to follow him during his papacy, nor ever had the opportunity of meeting His Holiness in person. My encounter with him was through his illuminative liturgy, profound thought and theology, written and spoken — which have enormously influenced my intellectual and spiritual life, and paved the way for my return back home to Catholicism.
In particular, I'm indebted to Summorum Pontificum and his magnus opus Jesus of Nazareth, which made possible for me, as for many other young people, not only to discover the splendour of the Traditional Latin Mass but the very essence of faith and liturgy. Through it, I rediscovered, not only my lost faith in the Church, but in beauty, goodness, and truth, as well. Values which nowadays are almost completely disregarded as ‘outdated’ concepts, which not only Benedict held as high of importance, but defended and revived throughout his life.
Not simply beauty for its own sake, but beauty as a transcendental symbol of God. Goodness and truth – the elements which the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite embodies; and thanks to it they found their way back to the Church. Because during a time when the world is besieged by egocentrism, profanity, kitsch and the cult of ugliness, the Old Rite offers a solution: orientation towards God (ad orientem), reverence, and beauty.
Thanks to Pope Emeritus, the co-operator of the truth, I rediscovered my passion for the truth and faith; guided by his eloquent writing, erudite theology, the splendour of the sacred tradition and aesthetics. As well as devotions such as the rosary and traditional liturgy – which he exalted through the years during his ministry throughout the years.
I learned from him that God is a Father who never abandons us; the true charity which gives us life. He taught us that God not only loves us but that God is love; That God is the eternal light which defeats any darkness, be it internal or external; he is the eternal hope that saves us. Particularly, in his dazzling encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), Benedict XVI emphasised the essence of Christian faith, that as believers, especially as converts testify through their own experience that faith brings hope, and hope leads us to a new life. A life guided by the light of truth.
Throughout his life, Benedict XVI witnessed a devotion to the truth through the incarnated Truth — Logos — our Lord Jesus Christ. His entire opus can be summarized as proclaiming harmony between faith and reason; a reasonable faith and a reasonable God. He emphasised that only Christ is the true measure of humanism. That He is the Way, the Truth, the Source of Joy and Eternal Life!
Pope Benedict XVI is widely known as a great contemporary theologian, perhaps one of the greatest of the century; an extraordinary university professor and author of many important books, a polyglot and composer. As well he was an early proponent of reform before the Council, an important figure at the Second Vatican’s Council, known as a reformer, and at the same time a faithful defender of tradition and orthodoxy. He is one of the authentic theologians dignified to be called defensor fidei, a title and quality which he showed during his years as the head of the Congregation for Doctrine and Faith, and consequently as the Pope – introducing reform of the reform by restoring the liturgical peace. Indeed, his defence of orthodoxy and development, especially the Hermeneutics of continuity, was often misunderstood by many. For Benedict XVI the Second Vatican’s Council and its reforms can be only understood as an affirmation of the doctrine in the light of tradition and previous Ecumenical Councils. Any other interpretation which affirms the “rupture” of tradition, thus negation of any previous Council, cannot be considered Catholic.
Nonetheless, despite the challenges he successfully defended orthodoxy by reaffirming the Catholic doctrine during the ongoing troubled, decadent and confusing times which he rightly defined as the "dictatorship of relativism". The relativistic ideology that, in his words, "recognises nothing as definite or true". As a result, he identified it as a totalitarian ideology – a by-product of the de-Christianization and de-Hellenization of thought; a destructive ideology that threatens, not only the entire existence of Western Civilisation but humanity itself.
As someone who had witnessed the horrors of Nazism, he saw a special need to warn humanity of the threat of new totalitarianism and tempting utopias. According to him, totalitarianism is based on certain patterns and fundamentally false anthropological assumptions that deny the truth as a concept and negate the reality of human nature and thus deny human dignity. The threat begins when politics become utopian and offers redemption, be it religious fundamentalism or secular totalitarianism, in the end instead of the promised Heaven it brings Hell on Earth.
Ratzinger often reminded us that the perennial answer to these threats is Christianity and its humanist anthropology which relies upon the very essence of the European civilisation.
Emphasising that Europe is not simply a continent, that it cannot be reduced in geographical terms, but it can rather be understood as a historical and cultural concept with Christianity and Greco-Roman philosophy in its centre. Without this, not only Europe cannot exist, but even human dignity and freedom are put at stake.
It was exactly for his “unpopular ideas” and other similar reasons which his opponents have often referred to him as a ‘controversial figure’; often cited by the media as “God’s Rottweiler” and even by his fellow theologians an old-fashioned “traditionalist”. But one does not have to wonder why a great reformer and respected thinker, even during the time I'm writing, is still slandered and belittled by many of those, including fellow clerics, who are highly influenced by the radical ideas of the '70; the self-professed 'innovators' and 'progressives' who claim that the Church's doctrine is "outdated" and must "adopt" to the contemporary values.
In a public letter published in 2019, his answer to such claims was clear:
“What must be done? Perhaps we should create another Church for things to work out? Well, that experiment has already been undertaken and has already failed. Only obedience and love for our Lord Jesus Christ can point the way. “
Benedict XVI was one of those rare faithful and great theologians who refused to compromise the Catholic orthodoxy and bow to the dominating trends of the Zeitgeist in exchange for guaranteed worldly praise and personal glory.
Regardless, history witnesses us that intellectual pride is a common trap, of the past and present, which leads and led theologians not only to disregard orthodoxy and tradition but invent and impose their ideas according to the trends. It is a strong temptation which has lured many influential contemporary theologians to yield to the spirit of a certain epoch only to become later a mediocre product of a short-lived ideology or epoch.
Unlike many distinguished contemporary theologians, Benedict XVI remained firm.
Even back then the young peritus Fr. Joseph Ratzinger resonates with the thought of the older self as a Pope, that an adult faith does not follow the trends of fashion but rather is deeply rooted in Christ, which opens up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which we distinguish the truth from false. He explained that the sacred tradition is not a mere collection of dead things, as it’s often mistakenly thought. According to him, the sacred tradition is 'a living river that links us to the origins', a river which takes us to 'the gates of Eternity'. As one prominent thinker put it, "the rarest of human traits is consistency," and Benedict XVI was one of them who demonstrated it.
His deep faith in Christ accompanied him consistently until his last breath, resonating with his last words which summarize his whole theology and ministry: “Jesus, ich liebe dich” – Jesus, I love you!
He was a faithful priest of Christ, whose life and thoughts resonated and reflected the Gospel. Perhaps, the following Pauline passage summarizes the best entire life, thought and ministry of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI - the brilliant thinker, theologian; the defender of truth, beauty and faith!
"For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables. But be thou vigilant, labour in all things, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy ministry. Be sober. For I am even now ready to be sacrificed: and the time of my dissolution is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:3-7 )
Europe has lost a profound thinker and the Catholic Church one of the last great theologians – the Patriarch of Christendom, an unusual Patriarch who was characterized by wisdom and tenderness!
His greatness will take time to be understood properly.
I extend my heartfelt condolences to all mourning Catholics and his admirers. His Holiness will be missed, but his legacy shall live long, certainly as a Doctor Ecclesia and hopefully soon our intercessor – Santo Subito!
May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem. May choirs of angels welcome you and lead you to the bosom of Abraham; and where Lazarus is poor no longer may you find eternal rest.
Rest in Peace, Your Holiness!
Rest in Peace our beloved Pope Benedict XVI.
Originally published on the website of the Orthodox Conservatives.
All writings reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the views of CYOE.