David Hamid recalls with fondness his interactions with Pope Benedict and his legacy for Anglicans


Pope Benedict XVI, the 264th successor to St Peter, died on 31 December at the age of 95. He was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger in 1927, ordained priest in 1951, onetime professor of theology at Tübingen then Regensburg, Germany, made a cardinal in 1977, and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the CDF) from 1981 until his election as Pope in 2005. He resigned the See of Rome on 28 February 2013.

There is a range of views, both in the Catholic Church itself, and among other Christians about his legacy. He is admired for his clear teaching, particularly in his three encyclical letters, Deus Caritas Est, Spe Salvi, and Caritas in Veritate. In these he explored the place of love in the life of the Church, how the virtue of hope can sustain us in a pessimistic world through prayer and even in suffering, and how human development can only be based on moral principles, themselves based on love and truth, challenging economic thinking both at the right and the left of the political spectrum. 

In my own personal library I value his three-volume work Jesus of Nazareth. He insisted these were scholarly texts, not magisterial ones. They are undergirded by Benedict’s high Christology and his own spirituality, as well as academic scholarship. While some biblical scholars would judge that he did not embrace the fullness of the historical-critical methodology, he was writing essentially as a teacher of the faith who believed that the theological/liturgical reading of scripture is a fundamental way to understand the Gospel. The other works of Pope Benedict to which I turn, particularly for my own spiritual reading, are the collections of his catecheses on great Christian figures, beginning with the Apostles and continuing with a range of great teachers of the Church, men and women, from the subapostolic age through the medieval period, which he delivered at the weekly public audiences. 

The late Pope was also loved for his emphasis on the beauty of the liturgy, which he taught should be at the heart of the Church’s life. Catholic Anglicans would appreciate his words from a homily he gave in Paris in 2008: ‘Our earthly liturgies will never be more than a pale reflection of the liturgy celebrated in the Jerusalem on high, the goal of our pilgrimage on earth. May our own celebrations nonetheless resemble that liturgy as closely as possible and grant us a foretaste of it.’ 

At the same time, there are many contemporary critics, both within the Catholic Church and beyond. Many are less pleased with the inadequate way he dealt with clerical abuse, including many survivors of such abuse at the hands of clergy and religious of the Church. 

Furthermore, during his time as head of the CDF, he upset many with his conservative line on human sexuality, and he was responsible for silencing many progressive theologians. This narrowing of theological thinking was in contrast to the earlier Ratzinger, who upheld wide-ranging academic freedom for theologians in the life of the Church. Many eminent theologians were cautious about him. A slightly amusing anecdote which spoke to this caution comes from the final stage of the drafting of the ARCIC document, The Gift of Authority. I was the co-secretary at the time and we were meeting on the very congenial patio of Palazzola, the Venerable English College’s residence in the hills outside Rome. As we were looking closely at paragraphs which would summarise the Commission’s agreement on papal authority, a rogue rooster appeared and strolled, clucking, across the patio. Fr Jean-Marie Tillard OP, the longest serving member of the Commission, sat up with a jolt and exclaimed, ‘Voilà – a spy from Ratzinger!’ 

Yet Joseph Ratzinger was not always a theological conservative. In 1962 he became an official expert at the Second Vatican Council, as an assistant (peritus) to Cardinal Joseph Frings. Frings was one of a group of cardinals who challenged much of the draft material prepared by the Curia. Through Frings, the progressive influence of the young Dr Ratzinger on such important Council documents as Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum (the dogmatic constitutions on the Church and on Divine Revelation, respectively) is a lasting legacy. In his diaries of the Council, Henri de Lubac SJ quoted Ratzinger: ‘One thing is essential: let us make sure that periti of diverse tendencies are heard within the commission, with that there will be real and sincere work’. 

Those who knew Joseph Ratzinger believe that his conversion to a more conservative position came in 1968. He was teaching at Tübingen, whose student body (and many of the faculty) had embraced the Europe-wide student unrest of that time. Apparently, one thing that troubled Ratzinger was chaos and disorder, both in the world and in the Church. The events of that year profoundly disturbed him. He left Tübingen for the more traditional faculty at Regensburg and he adopted a stance more intent on promoting theological cohesion in the teaching of the Church. 

It could be argued that Pope Benedict’s greatest legacy, even ecclesiologically, was his resignation. Most people, including most Roman Catholics, did not think that it was possible for a Pope to resign. (The last Pope to resign before him was Gregory XII in 1415.) During a conclave, speaking in Latin of course, to a room full of mildly bored-looking cardinals, he said: ‘…declaro me ministerio Episcopi Romae, Successoris Sancti Petri, mihi per manus Cardinalium die 19 aprilis MMV commisso renuntiare ita ut a die 28 februarii MMXIII, hora 20, sedes Romae, sedes Sancti Petri vacet’. For those whose Latin was a little rusty, as the simultaneous translation into Italian proceeded, the cardinals realised the momentous decision that had just been announced; the Pope would resign the See of Rome on 28 February 2013. The reasons he gave were his advanced age and declining health, but the huge lesson for the Church which the late Pope imparted by this decision was the importance of humility in the Church’s leadership. 

Benedict was also committed to the ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and other Christian Churches, including the Churches of the Anglican Communion. In 2006 to a gathering of the heads of Christian World Communions, he spoke earnestly of our ecumenical responsibility. ‘Those who profess that Jesus Christ is Lord are tragically divided and cannot always give a consistent common witness. Herein lies an enormous responsibility for us all. We may feel discouraged when progress is slow, but there is too much at stake to turn back.’ When he visited Lambeth Palace in 2010 as part of his State Visit to the United Kingdom, he told a gathering of Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops, ‘I wish to join you in giving thanks for the deep friendship that has grown between us and for the remarkable progress that has been made in so many areas of dialogue during the forty years that have elapsed since the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) began its work. Let us entrust the fruits of that work to the Lord of the harvest, confident that he will bless our friendship with further significant growth.’ As the present Co-Chairman of IARCCUM (the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission), I was very encouraged that Pope Benedict and Archbishop Rowan Williams together acknowledged in a joint statement that ‘our fellowship in the service of Christ, promoted by IARCCUM and experienced by many of our communities around the world, adds a further impetus to our relationship’. 

Ratzinger the theologian thrived on opportunities to engage in conversation with other great theological thinkers. Among them was, of course, our former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. When I accompanied Archbishop Rowan Williams to his audience with Pope Benedict in 2006, I was aware that I was in the presence of perhaps two of the brightest theological minds of the modern era. It was moving to see a genuine warmth between the two scholars, clearly based not only on a shared experience of the challenges of Christian leadership, but also a deep communion in theology. My own former diocesan bishop, the late Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, similarly enjoyed many discussions with Cardinal Ratzinger. When, in conversation with the then head of the CDF Bishop Geoffrey tested the mind of the Cardinal on Apostolicae curae, his answer delighted Bishop Geoffrey: ‘Of course, [Anglican Orders] are not nothing; there is a reality there.’ 

Pope Benedict was personally warm to Anglicans he met. He clearly appreciated the beauty and richness of our own liturgical tradition. As controversial as the 2009 Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum coetibus was for many Anglicans and Roman Catholics, one could argue that in it Pope Benedict was recognising dimensions of the Anglican tradition as ‘a precious gift’, a treasure to be shared. It is significant for Anglicans that we are the only other Christians mentioned in the ‘deed’ or rogito (the official summary of the highlights of his pontificate) which was placed in his sealed coffin. There, beside his remains, is this statement (in Latin): ‘He successfully promoted dialogue with the Anglicans, with the Jews and with the representatives of other religions’. 

In conversation with him he was far from what the press called ‘God’s rottweiler’; he was warm-hearted, gentle of speech and manner, rather shy and introverted. He loved the many cats which inhabit the gardens of the Vatican, and they loved him. (We all know that cats are very discerning creatures!) He enjoyed his piano and was devoted to that most sensitive and ordered composer, Mozart. A very human trait was his love of the occasional cigarette, his favourite brand being Marlboro. I have to smile when I think of him as a ‘Marlboro Man’. 

In his homily at the Pope Emeritus’s funeral, which I was privileged to attend, Pope Francis spoke of the traits of a pastor, a shepherd, with clear reference to his predecessor. A shepherd feeds the sheep, and ‘feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of his presence.’ 

O Lord we pray that your servant Benedict who was a faithful steward of your mysteries on earth, may praise your mercy for ever in the glory of your saints.


The Rt Revd David Hamid is the Suffragan Bishop in
Europe and blogs at eurobishop.blogspot.com.