After Seven Years, the Secret of Pope Ratzinger

Benedict XVI will be remembered more for his homilies than for his encyclicals. And for his audacious, unconventional actions. Like in Madrid, in front of a million young people and right in the middle of a violent storm…

by Sandro Magister

ROME, April 27, 2012 – No one said it a week ago, during the flood of tributes for Benedict XVI’s seventh anniversary as pope. But the element that has most revealed the profound meaning of his pontificate was a storm.

It was a scorching evening in Madrid, in August of 2011. In front of Pope Benedict, on the open ground, a million young people, average age 22, an unknown. All of a sudden a downpour of water, lightning, wind hurled itself on them all, with no shelter anywhere. Clusters of floodlights were tossed into the air, posters flew away, even the pope was drenched. But he stayed where he was in front of the explosive celebration of young men and women over the surprise performance from the heavens.

When the rain stopped, the pope set aside his written remarks and addressed just a few words to the young people. He invited them to look not at him, but at that Jesus who said he is living and present in the consecrated host on the altar. He knelt down in silent adoration. And the same happened in the clearing. Everyone knelt down on the wet ground. In complete silence. For a good half hour.

Madrid was not the first time that Benedict XVI had knelt in front of the sacred host, in prolonged silence. He had done so in Cologne in 2005, shortly after his election as pope, there as well at a nighttime vigil with myriads of young people, to the astonishment of all.

In the assessments of this papacy, few have understood the audacity of these unconventional actions. But when Benedict XVI performs them and explains them, he does so with the tranquil air of one who does not want to invent anything of his own, but simply to get to the heart of the human adventure and the Christian mystery.

Raphael too, five centuries ago, in that sublime fresco at the Vatican which is the “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament,” places the consecrated host at the center of everything, on the altar of a grandiose cosmic liturgy that sees the interaction of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the earthly and heavenly Church, time and eternity.

When Benedict XVI convened his first synod, in 2005, he dedicated it to the Eucharist. And he wanted that very fresco by Raphael to be projected, for the entire duration of the synod, on a screen in front of the bishops gathered there from all over the world.

Talk has been generated by Joseph Ratzinger’s erudite lectures at the University of Regensburg and at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, at Westminster Hall in London and at the Bundestag in Berlin. But it will be discovered one day that the greatest distinguishing feature of this pope is his homilies, as they were before him for Saint Leo the Great, the pope who stopped Attila.

The homilies are the words of Benedict XVI that get the least attention. He pronounces them during the Mass, perilously close, therefore, to that Jesus whom he points out as living and present in the signs of the bread and wine, to that Jesus who – as he preaches tirelessly – is the same one who explained the Sacred Scriptures to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, so similar to the disoriented men of today, and revealed himself to them in the breaking of the bread, as in the painting by Caravaggio in the National Gallery of London, and disappeared as soon as he was recognized, because faith is like that, it is never a geometrically complete vision, it is an endless interplay of freedom and grace.

To the little or no faith of many men of today, to the Masses trivially reduced to embraces of peace or assemblies of togetherness, Pope Benedict wants to offer the meaty faith in a God who really makes himself near, who loves and forgives, who lets himself be touched and eaten.

This was also the faith of the first Christians. Benedict XVI recalled this at the Angelus two Sundays ago. The birth of Sunday as the “Lord’s Day,” he said, was an act of revolutionary audacity precisely because the event that gave rise to it was extraordinary and astonishing: the resurrection of Jesus, and then his appearance as risen among the disciples on each “first day of the week,” the day of the beginning of creation.

The earthly bread that becomes communion with God, the pope said in a homily, “seeks to be the start of the transformation of the world – into a world of resurrection, a world of God.”

This commentary was published in “L’Espresso” no. 18 of 2012, on newsstands as of April 27, on the opinion page entitled “Settimo cielo” entrusted to Sandro Magister. 

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