Thirty years ago, on 15 February 1982, it was announced that John Paul II, complying with the wishes of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was relieving him of the pastoral governance of the Diocese of Munich and Freising. On the previous 25 November, in fact, the Pope had appointed the 54-year-old German Cardinal as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the most important dicastery of the Roman Curia. So it was that Ratzinger moved to Rome in those days of February, having remained for almost three months longer at the helm of the large Bavarian Archdiocese. He had come here 20 years earlier, in 1962, to spend the whole duration of the Council as theological consultant of one of the protagonists of the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Joseph Frings, Archbishop of Cologne.
Later the brilliant theologian returned several times to Rome, especially after 1977 when he was appointed Bishop of Munich and created a Cardinal by Paul VI at his last Consistory. At the first Conclave in 1978 Ratzinger became personally acquainted with Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, the Metropolitan of Krakow, and at the second one he contributed to the latter's election, convinced – as he wrote in 2004 – that he would be “the right Pope for the present time”. Only a few months later, in 1979, John Paul II summoned him to propose that he assume the office of Prefect of the Curia's Dicastery for Catholic Education, but the Archbishop of Munich did not want to leave his diocese after only two years of governance. However, the Pontiff wanted Cardinal Ratzinger at his side and in February 1981, informed the Cardinal of his intention to appoint him Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but only managed to overcome his resistance in the following autumn.
The German Cardinal has not left Rome since February 1982. Despite the passage of time and his wish to return full time to a life of study to which he has always felt called, John Paul II in fact asked him to stay with him as the head of the doctrinal body of the Roman Curia and, de facto, as his principal theological advisor. Thus for almost a quarter of a century the two men supported the Church from the See of Rome together – tertio millennio adveniente and then novo millennio ineunte – seeing her through the change of century on the path of the men and women of our day. And they accompanied this humanity and witnessed to it that God is close, as those who have been truly able to follow Jesus have always done in the course of history, despite the human sins and imperfections that are also present in the Church.
Then in 2005 even more was asked of Joseph Ratzinger at the moment of his very rapid election at the Conclave, an election that the cardinal had in no way sought and that he accepted with the simple serenity that impresses those who come close to him even for only a moment. “I do not know him but he has kind eyes”, an old woman of Rome said a few days later. So it is that in these years of his pontificate Benedict XVI has been increasingly able to convey – and not only to his faithful – what in 2006 he confided before the Mariensäule in Munich, the pillar erected in honour of Mary: that he felt, as it were, in accordance with the Augustinian interpretation of a Psalm, like a beast of burden labouring under the guidance of the peasant, but at the same time very close to his Master, the Lord Jesus, hence unafraid of evil.
This sentiment of total trust in God could already be perceived at the end of the invaluable autobiographical account by the Cardinal who, in 1997, was thinking back over his first half century of life. Today, 30 years after the beginning of the Roman period of this humble pastor who does not draw back before the wolves, the maturity of a pontificate that will pass into history has clear features, dispelling like smoke stereotypes that take a long time to die out, and countering irresponsible and unworthy behaviour. This sort of behaviour ends by mingling with the clamour of the media, inevitable and not of course disinterested, but which it is necessary to be able to turn to account as an opportunity for the purification of the Church.
As a Pontiff of peace who wishes to revive the flame of God's primacy, Benedict XVI is perfectly consistent with his history. It is a history characterized by a broad gaze which in his 30 years in Rome has always sought a global outreach and has been marked by a labour of innovation and purification, pursued with courage, tenacity and patience, in the knowledge that the enemy comes in the night to sow tares. This is why the Pope never tires of pointing out the need for continuous renewal ( ecclesia semper reformanda ), recalling that the Church's holiness will never be obscured if, in listening to the truth, she stays close to the one Lord.
St. Peter’s Square
Nov. 17, 2019
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