Pope Benedict XVI: The History Behind His Name

You can learn a great deal of a new pontiff’s expectations for himself if you go back to see how his eponymous predecessor experienced the papacy in his particular day and age — and especially how he responded to its challenges.

The last Benedict, XV, was pontiff from 1914-1922. During that time he worked mightily to turn the European powers away from war and toward reason. He did so to no avail. Here is his description of Europe in his first encyclical, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (1914):

     …On every side the dread phantom of war holds sway: there is scarce room for another thought in the minds of men. The combatants are the greatest and wealthiest nations of the earth; what wonder, then, if, well provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised, they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror. There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly-shed blood, and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain. Who would imagine as we see them thus filled with hatred of one another, that they are all of one common stock, all of the same nature, all members of the same human society? Who would recognize brothers, whose Father is in Heaven? Yet, while with numberless troops the furious battle is engaged, the sad cohorts of war, sorrow and distress swoop down upon every city and every home; day by day the mighty number of widows and orphans increases, and with the interruption of communications, trade is at a standstill; agriculture is abandoned; the arts are reduced to inactivity; the wealthy are in difficulties; the poor are reduced to abject misery; all are in distress.

We all know too well that his words fell on deaf ears. Or rather, on paranoid ears: each of the combatant nations was convinced that Benedict XV was favoring one or another of them. So great was their suspicion that representatives from Rome were excluded from the ‘peace’ talks in 1919.

Benedict’s words were both true and prophetic. France alone would go on to lose six out of ten of the cohort of young men between the ages of 18 and 28, either through death or maiming. A country cannot lose its manhood without becoming a distortion of itself. One has only to look to France today to see the shadows of that Great War even now darkening her public face.

Ratzinger is nothing if not a historian. He knew the world from which Benedict XV came; he knows the failure he experienced in attempting to turn nations from war. He knows the price Europe paid for its intransigence.

Ratzinger may also be the first Pontiff to have his own fan club in existence long before his ascension to the seat of the See of Rome. There is much speculation that Ratzinger was the ‘secret’ written on his predecessor’s heart. And the gathered cardinals no doubt knew that; thus the brief conclave.

Ten years ago, he shocked the Catholic world with this warning:

     We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, under circumstances very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31-32], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world. [1]
He added, “Christianity might diminish into a barely discernable presence,” because modern Europeans “do not want to bear the yoke of Christ”. The Catholic Church, he added, might survive only in cysts resembling the kibbutzim of Israel. He compared these cysts to Jesus’ mustard seed, faith of whose dimensions could move mountains. Ratzinger’s grim forecast provoked a minor scandal, complete with coverage in Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading newsmagazine. The offending sentences did not appear in the English translation, “Salt of the Earth”, and were not discussed further in polite Catholic company.
Cardinal Ratzinger is a Prince of the Church who threatened, as it were, to abandon the capital and conduct guerrilla war from the mountains. Years before Europe’s demographic death-spiral was apparent, Ratzinger had the vision to see and the courage to say that the Catholic Church stood on the brink of a catastrophic decline. This observation is now commonplace. As George Weigel, John Paul II’s biographer, wrote in March, “Europe, and especially Western Europe, is in the midst of a crisis of civilizational morale … Europe is depopulating itself at a rate unseen since the Black Death of the 14th century.”

Gates of Vienna awaits with great interest the first encyclical of Benedict XVI.

Hint: it will not be concerned with homosexual bishops or the ordination of women.

One thought on “Pope Benedict XVI: The History Behind His Name

  1. Yes, because the Pope considers them really to be non issues and they are.

    I have a feeling that his encyclical will be of concern to those Anglicans and now Lutherans who have been abandoned by their church.

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