By Daniel J. Bauer
Back in 2005, when he was first chosen to succeed Pope John Paul II, the charismatic pontiff who had reigned for 27 years, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger attracted attention because of his age. “He is to be a transitional figure,” said pundits. “A man in his late 70s can’t last as long as that other fellow. The church is not ready for another John Paul II.” From one perspective then, we cannot say we are shocked by the resignation of Benedict XVI. At just shy of 8 years, he’ll have reigned as head of the world’s billion plus Catholics longer perhaps than some had thought he might.
Known as a bear on Catholic tradition in his classrooms and earlier role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the “new pope” quickly set himself to the task of shepherding his people as opposed to policing theologians. Skeptics large and small (myself, for example) were happy to see his compassionate touch in reaching out to youth, to workers, to victims of sexual abuse, to world leaders as disparate as Fidel Castro, Nicolas Sarkozy, Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. In the eyes of many, until 2005 he had lacked an opportunity to show his warmth, his humble charm and, well, his disarming humanity. This is a man like John Paul II who in many ways resembles the biblical Nathaniel. You may have liked his views and leadership, or not have liked them, but you could not question his sincerity. Almost always, he was in truth what he appeared to be. When Benedict XVI bobbled the ball, he could look clumsy, not to say foolish but, fair or not to his critics, it was usually possible to forgive him and offer a second chance. Words he said about condoms and the spread of AIDs, or about the “deficiency” of religions outside of Christianity, or about forced conversions in the history of Islam made him look bad, but they made him, for me at least, more touchable. After he misspoke, I always pictured his face as full of grief as he hastened to recast his words. “No, no, I didn’t mean it that way,” I imagined him telling us. He appeared in those moments as I feel I sometimes am, not self-assured or infallible, but capable of a stumble or two, as embarrassingly vulnerable to human weakness. Vulnerability may prove to be the cross forever attached to the name of this particular Holy Father.