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The Pope of surprises

I met Pope Benedict XVI when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger in Rome in 1997. Then, he already had a reputation for being somewhat severe and aloof, so I felt a little trepidation when I was told that I would be introduced to him. My uneasiness fell away immediately.

He greeted me warmly, his eyes lit up and his handshake grew tighter when I told him I was Maltese. During that short and unforgettable meeting, Cardinal Ratzinger told me something that I still treasure and that I recall every time being a member of the Church feels particularly tough. So “God’s Rottweiler” was, in fact, a German Shepherd!

It was not a surprise for me - or for anyone who sees the real man behind the headlines and the caricature so often painted by the press - that he was elected Pope.

Predictably, even now, certain wings of the secular press are having a field day that Benedict resigned the papacy, seeing this resignation as the cherry on the cake of a flawed papacy. Inevitably, too, Benedict is also being compared to John Paul II’s decision to stay on till the bitter end.

For many, the ‘flaw’ in Benedict’s pontificate is that he is not John Paul II. Comparisons to the late pontiff have dogged his papacy but few pundits and faithful alike take the trouble to consider the fact that several wounds that had been festering for decades only came to light during Benedict’s tenure and he dealt with them courageously and with a firm hand.

The one notable issue is the clerical sex abuse scandal. Shortly before he was elected Pope, he had said: “How much filth there is in the Church and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to Him.”

When he was elected Pope, Benedict adopted a zero-tolerance approach to this “filth”, taking the bull by the horns not only with the drafting of new rules on how to deal with this issue but he also personally met with the victims here in Malta. Not only that: this supposedly hard and aloof man wept with them and asked for forgiveness.

A cynical world was surprised and confused. Benedict’s resignation once again pulled the carpet from under his critics. Reams and reams of print have been written that, as cardinal, Benedict was a fiercely ambitious man secretly coveting the throne of the man he worked with closely for so many years. But these commentators chose to ignore the fact that he had begged John Paul II to allow him to retire among his beloved books.

So he surprised his critics once more when he referred to himself as “a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord” in his very first appearance as the newly-elected Pope from the famous balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square. These are hardly the words of a proud and ambitious man.

In the age of Twitter and celebrity, when soundbites and memes are considered sufficient for a daily dose of knowledge and culture, the profundity of Benedict’s teachings and calm demeanour were lost in translation. Whenever in my theology studies I grappled with a difficult subject matter, I always turned to Benedict’s writings because he has a knack of explaining the most obscure concepts in breathtakingly simple but profound language.

When the dust settles on his pontificate, we will find that he left us a substantial body of writings and speeches. If we bother to read what he says and writes and not what others say about him, we will be surprised to realise that Benedict is not how he is so often portrayed. Benedict’s wisdom has been reduced to the soundbites of those who do not bother to parse his arguments but jump at the first opportunity to take words out of context for the sake of headlines and column inches.

Benedict sprung the last surprise on us on February 11. Having always been considered as conservative, the 22 lines of the declaration of resignation read with a faint tremor, Benedict brought about a revolution, and ‘eruption of modernity’ in the Church, since only a handful of popes resigned in two millennia, the last being 600 years ago.

But, most of all, Benedict’s resignation is a lesson in humanity and humility. In a time of ageism, when the world does not allow one to age, he told us that his strength has deteriorated and that he “had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me”. Benedict also asked for forgiveness for his defects.

There are hardly the gesture and words of a cold, aloof academic. The words of his resignation announcement possess all the marks of clarity and coherence that characterised his pontificate. And, yet, they also have an undeniable poetic ring, for they remain the words of “a simple and humble worker of the vineyard of the Lord”.

Hardly a surprise. Such is the greatness of the man.

Alessandra Dee Crespo is Chancellor of the Church Court of Appeals.

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