When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected ... He was seen as the Vatican's "Enforcer" ... "God's Rottweiler," the "Panzer Cardinal" ... Hence in the immediate aftermath of his election, most commentators fell back upon tried-and-true labels: "archconservative," "authoritarian," "hard-line."
Probably the best expression of all this came in an editorial cartoon in L'Unità, the newspaper of the old Communist Party in Italy. Understanding the cartoon requires a bit of background. In Italy, perhaps the most revered pope of modern times is John XXIII, known as il papa buono, "The Good Pope." One treasured memory of John XXIII is an evening in October 1962, the opening of the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic Action movement organized a torchlight parade that finished in St. Peter's Square. The pope was not scheduled to address the crowd, but when it arrived, John XXIII wanted to speak. He said something burned into the consciousness of most Italians, repeated endlessly on television and radio. Smiling down on the crowd, he said ... "When you go home, you'll find your children. Give them a kiss, and tell them that this kiss comes from the pope." It summed up the legendary love of the man.
Thus the L'Unità cartoon showed Benedict XVI at the same window, saying, "Tonight, when you go home, I want you to give your children a spanking, and tell them that this spanking comes from the pope."
This is my favorite anecdote about the conventional wisdom on Pope Benedict. Once upon a time, it was a perspective I shared. As his papacy comes to a close tomorrow, I trust that I am not the only one who has shed that view.
Benedict confounds our American socio-political labels. His words alternately delight and enrage both the family values and social justice crowds. He refuses to be stuffed into one of our usual boxes. Theology professor Charles Camosy describes Benedict as the Pope of "the 'great et…et' or 'both/and' way of being authentically human."
Yes, it must be said that, as the headline of a more recent John Allen offering puts it, "Benedict leaves behind legacy full of ups and downs." But popes are more than just CEOs of a global corporation, this one in particular. Benedict is in love with Truth, and that is the gift he was given to share with us. "He asked searching questions of both the church and the world, and offered his own provocative answers," says Allen, who concludes the aforementioned article with another anecdote.
British Prime Minister David Cameron may have provided the best epitaph while bidding the pontiff farewell at the Birmingham airport on Sept. 20, 2010, after a four-day swing in Scotland and England.
"Holy Father," he said, "you made us sit up and think."
The reason I love Benedict so much is that I've come to believe that the central truth he is trying to get us to see is the same one I am struggling to proclaim: We are family. As Benedict himself said in his final General Audience today:
It’s true that I receive letters from the world's greatest figures - from the Heads of State, religious leaders, representatives of the world of culture and so on. I also receive many letters from ordinary people who write to me simply from their heart and let me feel their affection, which is born of our being together in Christ Jesus, in the Church. These people do not write me as one might write, for example, to a prince or a great figure one does not know. They write as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, with the sense of very affectionate family ties. Here, one can touch what the Church is – not an organization, not an association for religious or humanitarian purposes, but a living body, a community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ, who unites us all.
"Our brother calls us to love, love God, love your neighbor, love ... Our brother died and rose so that we might all be one people, one community."
"You are my sibling. We are family. This is the essential truth of life. It is the only moral truth that really matters."
Benedict may not have blown us a lot of kisses in the last eight years, but let it never be said that his love for us, his family, was anything less than legendary.
May God bless Pope Benedict XVI, our brother Joseph Ratzinger!