That afternoon in Rome, Vatican Hill was the stage of an unprecedented execution: before the eyes of onlookers, a Galilean was crucified upside down. Given the barbarity of the method, it may have been surmised that he was a cruel criminal. In reality, he was the only mortal capable of binding Heaven and earth (cf. Mt 18:18). Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, finally surrendered his soul to the Love of his life.
Without the presence of the visible Head of the Church, the Vicar of Jesus Christ, the world was left literally upside down… Indeed, the nascent Church was facing its first great upheaval: the See was vacant! But there was nothing to fear, for the Divine Master had built His Church on firm rock. From it would emanate a line of successors to the first Pope who, one after the other, would transmit the power of the keys up to the present time.
The last day of 2022 saw the most recent death of a Pontiff. Benedict XVI did not follow his oldest predecessor into martyrdom, but wanted to echo Peter’s response when he was asked by Jesus about the extent of his love (cf. Jn 21:15-19). Indeed, the Pope Emeritus’ last words were: “Lord, I love You.”
What other ties exist between the first and the last Pope to pass away?
“Follow Me and I will make you a fisher of men”
Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger was born in the very middle of the “interwar period”. His birth fell on Holy Saturday, the Easter vigil, which his family interpreted as providential, as indeed it was. Benedict XVI would be called to be an announcer of Christ’s victory over death, as was Peter after visiting the empty tomb.
In 1939, as a twelve-year-old boy, Joseph was enrolled in a minor seminary where he spent three years, until it was closed by the Nazis and the students were forced to return home. Despite his poor health and his opposition to the Hitler regime, he was obliged to do military service. In the most adverse situations, he felt the presence of a “special Angel”1 who protected him, like the one who freed Peter from prison (cf. Acts 12:7-11).
Although persecuted on account of his desire to embrace the priesthood, he was finally ordained. He finished his academic studies in 1957 with a thesis on the Theology of History in St. Bonaventure. The following year he became a professor in Freising and in 1959 he went on to hold this post in the University of Bonn.
Later he performed one of the most important functions of his life, acting as a theological consultant of Vatican II. He would subsequently insist on the need to rediscover the true meaning of this council, in the face of such covert aggressive forces as rationalism, individualism and hedonism, which sought to distort it.2 Already as Pope, he discerned the existence of a “council of the media” that had created “so many disasters, so many problems, so much suffering: seminaries closed, convents closed, banal Liturgy…”3
As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, between 1981 and 2005, he diagnosed that “heresy still exists” and the necessity – as his earliest predecessor indicated – of preserving the people from “false prophets” with their pernicious heresies and dissolute doctrines (cf. 2 Pt 2:1-2).4 Now who could these charlatans be, these “Simon Magi” (cf. Acts 8:9-24) who, like false “Simon Peters”, defile the spiritual goods of the Church? Perhaps, as in early Christianity, only in time will they be identified…
Steering Peter’s barque amid the storm
When the one hundred and fifteen Cardinals gathered in conclave on April 18, 2005, few ventured to bet that Cardinal Ratzinger would be elected Pope on only the fourth ballot. For quite different reasons, few would have suggested that the uncultured and uncultivated Peter (cf. Acts 4:13), fisherman of the Sea of Galilee, could be raised to the highest dignity of the Church… God chooses what is weak in the eyes of the world in order to confound the strong (cf. 1 Cor 1:27)!
Ratzinger chose the name Benedict, in reference to Pope Benedict XV, guide of the Church in the turbulent times of the First World War, and to Benedict of Nursia, patriarch of western civilization.5
As at the time of the aforementioned war, the first Pope elected in the third millennium reigned during a period of institutional upheaval. When asked if he felt “like the last Pope of an old era or the first of a new one,” he replied: “I would say that I am between two eras.”6 Benedict XVI would be, in this sense, a true Pontiff, that is to say a “bridge” between two worlds, as he himself portrayed it: “I no longer belong to the old world, nor does the new one exist yet.”7
Indeed, during his papacy, a new generation was born with electronic devices in their hands. The Revolution was taking greater strides, promoting secularization, family dissolution, and an almost tribal way of life, as foretold by Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira.8
Certainly the entire doctrinal legacy of the theologian Ratzinger will play its part in the quest to restore the Faith. In the history of the Church, Benedict XVI is the Pope who has written the most throughout his life. Nevertheless, as Dr. Plinio also questioned, “what would be the use of books, of thinkers, of what ultimately remains of civilization, in a tribal world in which all the whirlwinds of disordered human passions and all the deliriums of structural-tribalist ‘mysticism’ were unleashed? A tragic situation, in which no one would be anything, under the empire of Nothingness…”9
In the face of this nihilism, the mission inspired by St. Benedict has to be understood much more along the lines of what has recently been called the “Benedict option”,10 that is, the search for the ideal of order and temperance, wisdom in balancing work and prayer, the integral promotion of Christian education, as well as detachment from worldly corruption, in the manner of the Benedictine rule. In other words, a true civilizational counter-revolution.
The fact is that Benedict XVI himself did not entirely fulfil the aforementioned “Benedict option”, not least because his pontificate was relatively short. Will his legacy at least fulfil it?
The denial of Peter and the renunciation of Benedict
On February 11, 2013, out of a serene sky, a bolt of lightning struck the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Benedict XVI would be the first Pope of modern times to renounce the Petrine office. Even the heavens were surprised by the decision!
It is undeniable that this act determined a new phase in the life of Benedict XVI, in the manner of Peter’s denials. We are not implying that the renunciation of the Petrine office was a betrayal. Far from it. However, the physical weakness of the German Pontiff is analogous to Peter’s lack of spiritual strength in the face of the questions of a simple maid servant. The Pope is not said to have regretted this decision, but it is symbolic that his private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, “wept bitterly” (cf. Lk 22:62) on June 18, 2022, when he commented on the fact.
Pascal declared that “all things cover some mystery; all things are veils that cover God.”11 Well then, what to say about a renunciation of the pontificate?… If the movements of Peter’s soul during the Passion are mysterious, how can one not wonder about Benedict XVI’s reflections before his resignation? What role would a “Pope Emeritus” have from then on?
Perhaps we will never know how to answer these questions, and things become even more enigmatic if we also consider the words of Archbishop Gänswein on May 20, 2016: “Before and after his resignation, Benedict understood and understands his duty as a participation in this ‘Petrine ministry’. He has left the pontifical throne; however, with the step of February 11, 2013, he has in no way abandoned that ministry.”12 Here, as in liturgical acts, the visible signs are less important those hidden under the aura of mystery…
The last Pope?
It is a clear fact that the eve of the year 2023 witnessed the last Pope to pass away. But did Benedict XVI close the list of Popes mentioned in the so-called “prophecy of St. Malachy”? That was one of Peter Seewald’s questions on May 23, 2016, to which the Pontiff Emeritus replied: “Anything is possible.”13 However, he adds that, in any case, this should not be interpreted as the end of the Papacy.
Be that as it may, with the death of Benedict XVI, we no longer have his participation in the Petrine munus. In this sense, would not the life of the German Pontiff have been a kind of kathekon – a restraint – against the “mystery of iniquity” (2 Thes 2:7)? If so, will there now come a new phase, that he himself had envisaged? Moreover, is this in line with the message of Fatima, whose prophetic mission, commented Benedict XVI, is not yet complete?14 As Archbishop Gänswein asserted, “Popes can correctly be judged and classified only ex post.”15 One day we will know.
After death, the resurrection
To human eyes, the death of St. Peter, leader of the nascent Church, would represent the end of Christianity. In reality, however, just the opposite happened. The following year, the persecutor Nero was dethroned and slain by his own cowardly hands. In 70 AD, fire was set to the temple of Jupiter and the shrines of Juno and Minerva. That same year, Jerusalem was destroyed, so that stone was not left upon stone… But as for the tiny Christian community, it continued to flourish in small nuclei, in the midst of the persecutions.16
Considering this, what point have we reached? Perhaps we are already on the verge of living what Ratzinger himself predicted: a community in the manner of a mustard seed, which develops in small groups, insignificant in appearance – the last ones… – but which brings good back to the world.17 For him, the strength of the Church in this new millennium will come from those “who have deep roots and live from the pure fullness of their faith.”18 In other words, the future of the Church belongs to the Saints.19
In this vein, does not a new vitality in the Church come to mind, a “springtime of Pentecost,”20 as Ratzinger envisaged in his memorable interview with Vittorio Messori? Are we not inclined to conjecture a “great Catholic renaissance,” as, for example, that which he witnessed during his pontificate among the “‘Heralds of the Gospel’, young people who are seized by the enthusiasm of having acknowledged Christ as the Son of God and of bringing Him into the world”?21 In these moments when sin abounds, how can we not hope for a superabundance of grace (cf. Rom 5:20), a kind of new descent of the Holy Spirit?
The first and the last
Such a calamitous situation, but one full of hope, coincides with the letter to the Church of Philadelphia in the Book of Revelation. In this regard, St. Bonaventure speaks of the advent of a “prince defender of the Church,” who will sustain her in times of tribulation. He will hold the power of the key of David, as one “who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens” (Rv 3:7).22
After this new eruption of the Holy Spirit, we can then expect events to take place in the manner of the accounts in the Acts of the Apostles.
First of all, a purification of the traitors of the Church is necessary: Judas is replaced by St. Matthias (cf. Acts 1:15-26), before the advent of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:1-13). Peter speaks to the crowds (cf. Acts 2:14-36), fostering the growth of the community. There are miracles, conversions and healings (cf. Acts 2:37-3:26), to show where the true Church is. Then the Petrine ministry is supported by the “Johannine” ministry, when John begins to collaborate directly in Peter’s battles before the Sanhedrin, that is, against the false Church (cf. Acts 4:1-30). Finally, there are new persecutions and missions, until peace reigns completely. Then we will stand before the “victor” and the “the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of Heaven” (Rv 3:12).
In short, those who think they are first will be last; and those who think they are last will be first… For those who have ears to hear, let them hear! ◊
1 RATZINGER, Joseph. Aus meinem Leben. Erinnerungen. München: DVA, 1998, p.41.
2 Cf. RATZINGER, Joseph. Rapporto sulla fede. Roma: Paoline, 1985, p.28.
3 BENEDICT XVI. Meeting with the Parish Priests and the Clergy of Rome, 14/2/2013.
4 Cf. RATZINGER, Rapporto sulla fede, op. cit., p.20-21.
5 Cf. BENEDICT XVI. General Audience, 27/4/2005.
6 BENEDICT XVI; SEEWALD, Peter. Benedicto XVI. Últimas conversaciones con Peter Seewald. Bilbao: Mensajero, 2016, p.195.
7 Idem, ibidem.
8 Cf. CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Tribalismo indígena, ideal comuno-missionário para o Brasil no século XXI. São Paulo: Vera Cruz, 1977.
9 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Revolução e Contra-Revolução. 5.ed. São Paulo: Retornarei, 2002, p.204.
10 Cf. DREHER, Rod. The Benedict Option. A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York: Sentinel, 2017.
11 PASCAL, Blaise. Lettre du fin de octobre 1656 á Charlotte de Roannez. In: Œuvres Complètes. Paris: Gallimard, 1954, p.510.
12 GÄNSWEIN, Georg. Benedetto XVI, la fine del vecchio, l’inizio del nuovo: L’analisi di Georg Gänswein. In: www.acistampa.com.
13 BENEDICT XVI; SEEWALD, op. cit., p.195.
14 Cf. BENEDICT XVI. Homily at the Shrine of Fatima, 13/5/2010.
15 GÄNSWEIN, op. cit.
16 Cf. WALSH, William Thomas. Saint Peter the Apostle. New York: Macmillan, 1948, p.307.
17 Cf. RATZINGER, Joseph. O sal da terra. 2.ed. Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 2005, p.15; 100.
18 RATZINGER, Joseph. Fe y futuro. Salamanca: Sígueme, 1973, p.74.
19 Cf. Idem, p.75.
20 RATZINGER, Rapporto sulla fede, op. cit., p.41.
21 BENEDICT XVI. Light of the World. The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2010, p.58.
22 In this regard, see: RAZTZINGER, Joseph. La Teología de la Historia de San Buenaventura. 2.ed. Madrid: Encuentro, 2010, p.67-70.