It was a strange moment when my then curate looked over his computer at me on a February day ten years ago and said, ‘The Pope’s resigned’. We had one of those daft exchanges—‘What do you mean, the Pope’s resigned?’—‘Well, he’s resigned. The Pope’s resigned.’ And it was true. Pope Benedict had indeed resigned, and the Roman Catholic Church lost its Chief Pastor, and the whole of God’s Church was deprived of one of its finest contemporary theologians. And now he has gone to his rest in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.
I wish he’d carried on writing, but I suppose every time he’d said anything, the commentariat would have been looking for controversy, for disagreement between him and his successor. There are nearly seventy books in his bibliography, and a number of them will be familiar to parish clergy as wonderful springboards for sermon-writing. He will be remembered as a traditionalist theologian, which ‘modern’ churchmen will find dull, but the truths of the Christian Faith are never dull. Orthodoxy is always much richer and more exciting than heresy. As Eric Mascall once put it, what is needed of a theologian is ‘an intense conviction of the truth and vitality of the Christian religion, a confidence in the relevance of theology to matters outside the academic sphere, and a combination of humility with intellectual integrity’. I think that would have made sense to Pope Benedict.
In 1997, the then Cardinal Ratzinger published a volume of which I am particularly fond called Images of Hope. It’s a small collection of meditations on the great feast-days in the Church’s year, and I am often drawn back to the two chapters on Christmas. Perhaps it was all part of the divine plan that he should go to his Maker during Christmas week, and as we were beginning our celebration of Mary, Mother of God.
The Christmas Pope takes us to the Christmas Church, and the sense of stillness he finds when he enters the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, leaving the restless streets of Rome outside. He is reminded that, however busy the basilica may be with tourists and pilgrims, ‘an invitation to be silent, to recollect, and to look emanates from the mysterious glow of the church that of itself lets the noise of the everyday seem insignificant. It is as if the centuries of prayer had remained present in order to accompany us on our way’. Here is our fellow-pilgrim: the building ‘beckons us to stay awhile in order to awaken the powers of the heart to listen and see’.
Santa Maria Maggiore was built in celebration of the Council of Ephesus, and it is sometimes known as the ‘Christmas church’ because the relics over which it was built are not those of a saint but those of the crib in which, tradition has it, the new-born Jesus was laid. Many of the mosaics are original, from the fifth century, which I find spine-tingling. They date from just 400 years after the death and resurrection of Christ.
The nave mosaics depict Old Testament stories of patriarchs and prophets, beginning with Abraham, but taken mainly from the stories of Moses and Joshua, and the mosaics around the arch are mainly of the details of Jesus’ infancy. So the nave mosaics bring you in procession to the Incarnation: they present, as Pope Benedict put it, ‘the procession of mankind to the Redeemer’. But, he goes on, ‘In the middle, where we would expect the birth of Christ to be represented, we find instead only an empty throne’, on which can just be seen a cross, a crown, and the mantle of a king, and underneath ‘the bundle of history’ bound with red ribbon, as legal documents are to this day, but these documents are the story of our salvation.
And that empty throne is the Christmas image of the basilica because, as Pope Benedict puts it, ‘here, the procession of history, all the splendour of the mosaics, is abruptly pulled down into the cave, into the stable. The images fall down into reality. The throne is empty, for the Lord has come down into the stable. The central mosaic, to which everything leads, is likewise only the hand that is extended to us so that we might discover the leap from the images to reality.’ And the reality of the cave is made for us in the mass of Christmas night. ‘Only when we let ourselves be led there from the message of the room do the words hold true anew: Today a Saviour is born to you. Yes, really today.’
Pope Benedict used to infuriate the secularists and the theological liberals, as we might remember only too well from his visit to these shores in 2010. Those who can’t win the argument often resort to abuse, and he was not only brighter than his critics, but a better defender of reason. They hated his critique of the ‘dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate standard consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.’ There is such a thing as truth, and ‘The truth comes to rule, not through violence, but rather through its own power’. May the God of Truth welcome him into his eternal home.