As promised, Benedict xvi has spoken. He spoke as a Christian. A nearly 95-year-old Christian, who is living the final years of his long life increasingly frail in body, with a feeble voice but lucid mind, and who has found himself once again at the center of accusations and controversies.
His brief and heartfelt response stems from his deep gaze of faith. Ratzinger took his cue from the penitential act of daily Mass to express his personal and moving “confession.”
At the beginning of every Eucharistic liturgy, the celebrant and the faithful repeat the “mea culpa” ending with the words “my most grievous fault”. It is the consciousness of being sinners and therefore in need of imploring mercy and forgiveness.
This “penitential” attitude is far from both the triumphalism that considers the Church an earthly power and the corporatist style that reduces its existence to organization, structure, and strategies. It is also far from the widespread attitude of always judging others and their faults, instead of questioning oneself about one’s own.
Joseph Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the beginning of the new millennium waged a struggle against clerical abuses. As Pope he enacted very harsh laws to combat this abominable scourge. However, in his letter he neither recalls nor lays claim to any of this.
The days following the publication of the Munich report were an opportunity for him to make an “examination of conscience” and a personal “reflection” on what happened.
The Pope Emeritus says he has gazed into the eyes of “the consequences of a most grievous fault” in his encounter with those who have been abused, and learned that “we ourselves are dragged into this most grievous fault when we neglect it or when we do not face it with the necessary decision and responsibility, as too often has happened and happens.”
He expresses “profound shame,” “deep sorrow”, and a “heartfelt request for forgiveness” for all the abuses and errors, including those that occurred during his time in office in the respective places where he served, in Germany and Rome.
He writes, without subtracting himself, that he himself feels challenged by the attitude of those who still today underestimate the phenomenon, that is, by those who slumber, just as the apostles slept on the Mount of Olives, leaving Jesus alone to pray and sweat blood in the face of the abyss of sin. He asks the “brothers and sisters” to pray for him.
The words of Benedict xvi in the letter are those of a helpless old man, who now senses the nearness of the encounter with God whose name is mercy. They are the words of a “humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord”, who sincerely asks for forgiveness without escaping the concreteness of problems, and invites the whole Church to feel the bleeding wound of abuse as her own.