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The Courage To Be Imperfect | D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D. | From the Introduction to Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (A Theological Portrait)

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Walking the streets of Rome the day before Pope Benedict XVI's Inauguration Mass, [1] I was confronted by a strange and rather unsettling sight: the familiar face of my former teacher in hundreds of posters everywhere. They were on billboards and in street stalls among miniature statues of Michelangelo's Pietà and David, or they were stuck incongruously between bottles of grappa in a café. I had arrived in Rome that Saturday morning and was one of the vast crowd walking toward the magnificent piazza in front of Saint Peter's Basilica, still somewhat numbed by shock that the man whom I had long revered as Doktorvater had just been elected pope, the new successor of Saint Peter. Joseph Ratzinger himself has written extensively on the nature of the office of the pope, [2] and at least three of his doctoral students [3] have devoted their research to the origins and nature of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the universal Church, which is one of the chief stumbling blocks for separated Christians, in fact the only really substantial obstacle to union with the Orthodox Churches.

It was only in the course of the various celebrations marking his inauguration as successor of Saint Peter that I slowly came to terms with the transformation of my former teacher, an eminent but essentially humble German professor, into the Universal Pastor of the Church, now the focus of the world's attention, thanks in no small way to the modern mass media. The somewhat retiring academic I had once known had become an exuberant pastor, responding with gestures we his former students had never seen before, such as waving hands and kissing babies.

While I was in Rome, the main topic of conversation was the person of the new Pope. Everyone wanted to know: What kind of a person is he? Those who had only known the new Pope as the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had a decidedly negative image, one largely created not only by a largely hostile media but also by the nature of his office as Cardinal Prefect responsible for the integrity of the faith. [4] That image did not match the reality they now saw on their TV screens, and so they asked: "What is he really like?" His former grim image was strikingly at variance with the smiling new Pope, who had evidently captured the hearts of the Romans and who was already causing journalists from around the world to question their own creation.

When we, his former students, some of whom had known him for forty-five years, got together in private, we allowed ourselves the luxury of fond--and not so fond--reminiscences. Over lunches that lasted well into the afternoon, we recalled the halcyon days when we were his postgraduate or postdoctoral students. The atmosphere in Rome was comparable to that of a wedding banquet: we tried to accustom ourselves--not without an occasional tear and much laughter--to the sudden change of our much beloved teacher into the Holy Father, who was now exciting the world as he had once inspired his students in Regensburg. In truth, we could hardly contain our joy or adequately express our surprise at the fact that our former teacher had become the successor of Saint Peter as Bishop of Rome, whose main task would be to nourish the faith and strengthen the brethren, his fellow bishops and all fellow Christians, in our common mission and responsibility to bring Christ to mankind and lead mankind to Christ.

The world at last, we felt, had the opportunity to encounter the charming personality; intellectual brilliance, and pastoral heart of the man we his former students knew so well. This encounter was made possible by journalists, the very people, paradoxically, who had been largely responsible for his negative image as "Grand Inquisitor", Panzerkardinal (the iron-clad cardinal), and "enforcer of the faith" (John L. Allen, Jr.). Incidentally, at an audience of some five thousand journalists and their relatives the day before his induction, Benedict XVI thanked them for making it possible for the world to participate in the recent death of the Pope and the election of a successor, often at great personal cost to themselves and their families. It was the first time they had been thanked by a pope, one hardened journalist told me, and they were deeply moved.

We, his former students, recalled the days when he was a professor in Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and, especially, Regensburg. We were displeased by the recent attempt to blacken his image by distorting the truth about his youth at a time when Germany was under the total control of Hitler. (He and his family were intensely anti-Nazi.) [5] And we speculated about the future, about what he might do, in the light of what we knew of his own personality and, more importantly, of his great mind and extraordinary memory.

Pope Benedict XVI will teach the world not only by what he says but also by example. The simple dignity of the Requiem for Pope John Paul II and the sheer beauty of his own Inauguration Mass gave those present a touch of heaven on earth--and entranced those who followed it on television. As I remarked to a Dublin diocesan priest, now studying liturgy in Rome, who sat near me at the Mass: Benedict XVI was giving the world his first lesson in liturgy. He has written extensively on liturgy, but his writings have generally been ignored--even kept off the shelves of at least one institute set up for the study of liturgy, as I happen to know. Now, it is hoped, people will finally read him.

This, I suspect, will be his teaching method--first to win the hearts of people, who will then read for themselves what he has written on a particular topic. He has written on almost every theological subject touching on the faith, morality, and Church and State. The latest bibliography of his publications (up to 2002) covers some seventy-nine pages. [6] Many more publications have appeared since then-the latest a few weeks after his election as Pope Benedict XVI, [7] for, as few people realize, he continued to publish as a private theologian while Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

What is the secret of Ratzinger's quiet, dignified behavior, as seen during the world-shaking events of Pope John Paul II's death and the conclave that elected him successor? How could he be so relaxed and smiling precisely at the moment he accepted his election to responsibilities that would overwhelm most mortals? Let me answer by recalling two anecdotes.

While at Tubingen, one student asked another to identify the difference between Professor Ratzinger and another equally famous theologian. The reply was: Ratzinger also finds time to play the piano. He is as open to beauty as he is to truth. He lives outside himself. He is not preoccupied with his own self. Put simply, he does not take himself too seriously.

The other anecdote is personal. Once he asked me gently about the progress of my thesis. It was about time, as I had been working on it for some seven years. I told him that I thought there was still some work to be done. He turned to me with those piercing but kindly eyes, saying with a smile: "Nur Mut zur Lücke" (Have the courage to leave some gaps). In other words, be courageous enough to be imperfect.

On reflection, this is one of the keys to Ratzinger's character (and also to his theology; in particular his theology of politics): his acceptance that everything we do is imperfect, that all knowledge is limited, no matter how brilliant or well read one may be. It never bothered him that in a course of lectures he rarely covered the actual content of the course. His most famous book, Introduction to Christianity, is incomplete. [8] Ratzinger knows in his heart and soul that God alone is perfect and that all human attempts at perfection (such as political utopias) end in disaster.

The only perfection open to us is that advocated by Jesus in the Gospel: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48), he who "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Mt 5:45). Love of God and love of neighbor: that is the secret of Pope Benedict XVI, and that will be the core of his universal teaching. [9]


[1] The booklet with the text of the Mass was entitled: Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome. It seems to be of no small significance that neither the term Summus Pontifex nor any related title is mentioned in the liturgical booklet. Like the replacement of the papal tiara, or triple crown, with a simple bishop's miter in the Pope's coat of arms (albeit with traces of the tiara in the miter), this preferred title (the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome) probably signifies a change of emphasis for the papacy, although one that is rooted in the most ancient traditions of the Church universal, in particular, that of the pre-Constantinian era. It might well augur a new era in ecumenical relations, especially with the Orthodox and Oriental Churches no longer in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

[2] See, for example, Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger, Episkopat und Primat, Quaestiones Disputatae II (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1961); J. Ratzinger, Das neue Volk Gottes: Entwufe zur Ekklesiologie (Düsseldorf. Patmos, 1969); "Papal Primacy and the Unity of the People of God", in Church, Ecumenism and Politics: New Essays in Ecclesiology [=CEP], trans. Robert Nowell (Slough: Saint Paul; New York: Crossroad, 1988), pp. 29-45; Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), especially chap. 2, pp. 47-74.

[3] M. Trimpe, Macht aus Gehorsam: Grundmotive der Theologie des päpstlichen Primates im Denken Reginald Poles (1500- 1558) (dissertation, Regensburg, 1981); Stephan Otto Horn, Petrou Kathedra: Der Bischof von Rom und die Synoden von Ephesus und Chalcedon (Paderborn: Verlag Bonifatius-Druckerei, 1982); Vincent Twomey, Apostolikos Thronos: The Primacy of Rome as Reflected in the Church History of Eusebius and the Historico-Apologetic Writings of Saint Athanasius the Great (Münster: Aschendorfi 1982).

[4] The effect of his negative image is well illustrated by the reaction of an old friend, an S.Sp.S. Sister, to whom I had given To Look on Christ, one of Ratzinger's spiritual works, as a present quite some time ago. She did not even bother to open the book. During Advent one year, she got the courage to take it off the shelf--only to be quite overwhelmed by the richness of his reflections. She has since reread the book so often that it has come apart!

[5] I will deal with this topic below in chap. 6.

[6] Joseph Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion, a collection of articles published as a book by his former doctoral and post-doctoral students on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday and edited by Stephan Otto Horn and Vinzenz Pfnür (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005); the bibliography is on pp. 299-379. For the most complete annotated bibliography up to 1986, see that compiled by Helmut Höfl in Weisheit Gottes--Weisheit der Welt, vol. 2, Festschrift für Kardinal Ratzinger zum 60. Geburtstag, ed. Walter Baier et al. (St. Ottilien: EOS Verlag, 1986), pp. 1*-77*. For the period from 1986 to 1997, see the bibliography of original publications (including secondary literature on his theology) compiled by Helmut Moll and thematically arranged in Joseph Kardinal Ratzinger: Von Wiederauffinden der Mitte: Grundorientierung; Texte aus vier Jahrzehnten, ed. Stephan Otto Horn, S.D.S., et al. (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1997; 2nd printing 1998), pp. 291-315.

[7] Joseph Ratzinger, L'Europa di Benedetto nella crisi delle culture. Introduzione Marcello Pera (Siena: Edizioni Cantagalli, 2005); English trans.: The Europe of Benedict in the Crisis of Cultures, trans. Brian McNeil, C.R.V (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).

[8] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity [=IC], trans. J. R. Foster (London: Burns and Oates, 1969). The book was intended to be a commentary on the Creed, but in fact the third article (on the Holy Spirit) is but a fragment. The genesis of this, perhaps the most well known of all his writings, is interesting. In the preface to the first edition (1968), he wrote: "The book arose out of lectures which I gave at Tubingen in the summer term of 1967 for students of all faculties." The lectures were tape-recorded by one of his Assistenten, Doctor Peter Kuhn, who made a transcript of the tape. He gave the transcript to Professor Ratzinger to edit and insert the footnotes, which was done during the summer vacation. A second edition with a new preface was published in Germany in 2000, with an English translation in 2004 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press).

[9] This was written in May 2005. My prognostication has been confirmed, not only by the first encyclical from the pen of Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, which has the interaction of divine and human loves as its subject matter, but also by many of his addresses and messages, such as his Address to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2005.

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Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (A Theological Portrait)
Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.

Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, a former doctoral student of Joseph Ratzinger and long time friend of the Pope, felt the need to respond to the common question he heard often after the papal election, "What kind of person is the new Pope?" So often Twomey had read false depictions of both the man and his thought, especially the image presented by the media as a grim enforcer.

Twomey offers here a unique double-presentation of the man, Pope Benedict XVI--a "theological portrait" that encompasses both an overview of the writings, teachings and thought of the brilliant theologian and spiritual writer, as well as the man himself, and his personality traits and how he communicates with others.

Twomey shows that the secret to the serene dignified behavior of Benedict is that he is open to beauty as much as truth, that he lives outside himself, and is not preoccupied with his own self. He also is a man that Twomey says "has the courage to be imperfect", showing he has a deep humility and strives for teaching the truth even when misunderstood or not presented as well as he would like.

Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D. holds both a Ph.D. in Theology and is Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, Ireland. A formal doctoral student under Joseph Ratzinger, Twomey is the author of several books, including his acclaimed study of the state of Irish Catholicism, The End of Irish Catholicism?

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