Mark Dowd embarks on a personal quest to understand Pope Benedict XVI

June 1945. An exhausted 17-year-old boy has been released from a prisoner of war camp and completes an 80-mile journey back home, eager to see his family and friends. As he descends at sunset from the hills into his home town of Traunstein close to the Austrian border on the feast of the Sacred Heart, he hears music coming from the church of St Oswald. It is almost something from a Hollywood screenplay.

“The heavenly Jerusalem itself could not have appeared more beautiful to me at that moment,” he writes. The teenage Joseph Ratzinger knew that his mother and sister Maria were in the church. You or I might have hastily pulled open the church door and blundered in, scouring the pews in search of eager family reunion. But what does the present Pope tell us in, Milestones, his short collection of memoirs published in 1997?
“I did not want to create disturbance so I did not go in.”

Why not? This was one of a huge list of questions I wanted answers to and one which forms part of a BBC Two film, Benedict: Trials of a Pope, to be shown next week before the arrival of His Holiness on the first ever state visit by a Pope to Britain. The most fitting person on hand to answer that question was his 86-year-old brother, Georg, now a retired choirmaster and canon at Regensburg Cathedral. Our production team had found a willing intermediary in family friend, Margarete Ricardi, who I met outside his home in the centre of Regensburg.

“How do I address him?” I asked nervously. “Is it OK to call him Herr Ratzinger?”

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Margarete’s face betrayed a faint sense of revulsion. “No, no,” she said. “You must call him Herr Domkapellmeister [cathedral choirmaster]. Titles are very important in Germany.”

Clearly. Ninety per cent of my O-level German has all but disappeared, but this word was inserted firmly into my cerebral cortex and duly reappeared five minutes later as we made our introductions.

So what about that reluctance to enter the church?

“My brother has spent his whole life in devotion to the liturgy and knows that it is the central pillar of the Church’s life,” Georg told me. “He knows that if he had gone in, it would have created a disturbance. No, he said a prayer and that was it.”

The young Joseph went home. Father was waiting and later, that long-awaited reunion with his mother and sister. But if ever a story were to touch on so many important themes in the Ratzinger worldview, it is this one: the respect for the aesthetics of liturgical life, the centrality of order and a strongly held sense of boundaries: and not making yourself “the story”, realising that self-assertion is not a central component of personal freedom.

The making of this film has been something of a voyage of discovery for me. I can’t be the only Catholic in the world who had major apprehensions on April 19 2005 as the conclave made its decisive choice to elect the first German pope since the 11th century (I don’t count Adrian VI, born in Utrecht in 1459, part of the Holy Roman Empire). I was worried about whether the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith might be just a little too polarising. I am no expert of conclave arithmetic, but my hunch was that he simply had too many doubters inside the College of Cardinals to get the required votes. Wrong. And I have been wrong about him, too. It is not that he has changed radically since taking up the papacy; it is simply that when you have to make a one-hour programme on one of the most clever and gifted people on the planet you have to look behind the headlines and the angry rants on the blogosphere. In short, you have to do justice to the man as best as you can.

Something similar is going on with Pope Benedict at the moment as has been occurring with John Henry Newman in recent months. Recognising the brilliant intellectual acumen of an individual often leads to wings, sections of the Church, staking their claim. They want to possess them as “their own”. I can understand why. But there are occasionally rare moments when these drives towards colonising the output of a gifted mind simply fail on account of the sheer dynamism and multi-facetedness of the individual concerned. So Pope Benedict’s uncompromising language on homosexuality, his disciplining of liberation theologians and 2007 Motu Proprio on the Old Rite of the Roman liturgy all have conservatives ticking their boxes and approving. But how then to deal with some rather contradictory evidence, not least of all his championing of workers’ rights in Caritas in Veritate and his uncompromising critique of neo-liberal economics?:

“I would like to remind everyone, especially everyone engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity” (italics from the text).

Similarly, those who complain of the betrayal of Vatican II and have this pontificate down as unreservedly restorationist and insular have some explaining to do. How is it that such a man commands the respect of a towering figure and atheist intellectual such as Jürgen Habermas, so much so that they are prepared to engage in a dialogue in public? How is it that such a man devotes his first encyclical to a profound discussion of human love and ponders on the potential for Eros and Agape to be a bridge between the human and the divine? Furthermore, how is it that this pope has taken every opportunity to emphasise that care from the environment is not some woolly-minded aspect of New Ageism, but an integral part of his theological outlook? So much so that in January His Holiness called in many of the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See and berated them for the “economic and political resistance” that resulted in the failure of last December’s climate summit in Copenhagen.

When I ascended the roof of the Aula Nervi just a three-minute walk from St Peters, the charming Vatican architect, Guido Rainaldi, unveiled an amazing sight to me: more than 2,500 solar panels. Low carbon heaven. Green energy companies have been beating a path to the site and sounding out the idea of using Vatican employees as guinea pigs with their emerging fleet of electric cars and scooters. “Who knows,” said Signore Rainaldi, “perhaps when we get the first consignment of vehicles, the Holy Father will bless them. Maybe he can take one for a spin?” (The Pontiff does not possess a driving licence, but in theory that is no bar on him hopping on to a scooter.) That Joseph Ratzinger has not quite lived up to his predictable billing is a point well understood by the Italian senator Marcello Pera, with whom Pope Benedict wrote a book on Europe and culture called Without Roots. When I met Pera in the heart of Rome earlier in the year he told me of the reaction of his fellow legislators.

“There was a huge prejudice,” Pera said. “Everyone was expecting the Rottweiler. I had invited him to address the Senate: this was the first time a cardinal had ever set foot inside the building and they were amazed. He really charmed them.” What exactly was Pera doing, as a godless man, engaging with the Vicar of Rome?

“I wanted these secularists to reflect. They talk about the absolutist nature of human rights, but they have no idea of the basis of where such an idea comes from – namely, that everyone is made in the image of God and deserves respect and has an integrity based on that.”

Pera makes a further point: “Let’s look at this question from a historical point of view. What happened to Europe, when it denied Christianity? We had Nazism, Fascism, Communism, anti-Semitism. That means that when Europe tried to avoid its own roots and so the culture of rights, specially the respect of the human person, Europe finds itself in dictatorship.”

Good for Pera. Can you imagine this from the archpriest of atheism, Richard Dawkins?

But the real delight for me has been in engaging with the writings of this 83-year-old man. The encyclicals have been given deserved space and attention. Yet you have to go back to 1968 for his classic, Introduction to Christianity, a work in which it becomes abundantly clear that, for this gentle and determined Bavarian, that man does not create his own truth through effort and endeavour, but, as he writes: “To believe as a Christian means in fact entrusting oneself to the meaning that upholds me and the world, taking it as the firm ground on which I can stand fearlessly… to believe as a Christian means understanding our existence as a response to the word, the logos, that upholds and maintains all things.”

There are some wonderful reflections on Moses, the encounter with the burning bush, the voice of God and the seeds of the understanding of true monotheism – the God who replies, “I am what I am” being a transcendent presence “who cannot give his name in the same way as the gods round about, who are individual gods alongside similar gods and therefore need a name”.

Jump forward almost 40 years and we have volume one of Jesus of Nazareth. I must confess to being daunted by this work as many had started and failed, warning me that it was “hard going”. Be that as it may, what is genuinely moving about the encounter one undergoes in reading this book is the sheer power and depth of faith in the 335 pages. Forty of those are a flowing meditation on the Lord’s Prayer and the Pope writes with such a direct voice, occasionally moving away from a more formal and academic tone – you almost feel he is in the room, singling you out, speaking to you directly. “We must also keep in mind that the Our Father originates from [Jesus’s] own praying,” he writes, “from the Son’s dialogue with the Father. This means that it reaches down into depths far beyond the words… each one of us with his own mens, his own spirit, must go out to meet, to open himself to, and submit to the guidance of the vox, the word that comes to us from the Son.” And to think that volume two on the Passion, death and Resurrection has already gone off to the publishers…

These books are not exercises of the Magisterium, as Pope Benedict reminds us in the preface to his first volume: “Everyone is free to contradict me. I would only ask for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.”

That this goodwill has been at times conspicuous in its absence in the run-up to next week’s visit has been obvious for some time. I put that down to a trinity of factors which, when mixed in a heady brew, account for a lot of the reservations: an ever-present strain of anti-Catholicism here in Britain, a small but potent anti-German sentiment and, of course, the understandable raw nerve touched by the seemingly endless crisis of clerical sex abuse.

It is this last factor which deserves some detailed attention and in our BBC film we do our best to take account of how fair it really is to single our Pope Benedict for special criticism. The man I approached to help me evaluate all this was John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and a man described as having a “maddening objectivity” by the online Catholic magazine Godspy. In a Catholic world of tribal rivalries, Allen is trusted by most to get it right and to be fair. That is why his Vatican contacts are the envy of most members of the fourth estate.

Allen’s take is principally that the bottle is overwhelmingly more full than empty. The Pope has met the victims of abuse on several occasions, made numerous apologies and embraced a zero-tolerance policy for clergy found guilty of abuse. The statute of limitations has recently been extended to 20 years to allow abuse cases to be pursued with greater ease, placing the Catholic Church ahead of many civil authorities in this respect. Moreover, it was the Pope, shortly after his accession, who moved to isolate Fr Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionnaires of Christ, after years of mounting evidence of abuse and corruption, evidence which culminated in a Vatican investigation into his movement. None of this happened under Pope John Paul II and many have suggested that the then Cardinal Ratzinger would have taken action earlier, but supporters of Maciel acted to block any initiatives. But it is clear this is not a man in denial.

When I spoke to Allen in Rome about the effect all this was having on the Holy Father, he said: “I have spoken to people who work in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who were there in the rooms when case files were being read out loud and they saw the kind of reaction of disgust and horror and shock that washed across the visage of Joseph Ratzinger.

“I don’t think that was for show. This was away from TV cameras in a private room. I think that genuinely does speak to his experience.”

As my quest to understand Joseph Ratzinger gathered momentum a clearer picture was emerging. Far from questions of massive personal culpability, it seemed to me that the implosion of recent cases presents the leader of the Catholic Church with a very heavy personal burden. This man’s talents are not best served by details of management and structures: he is a first-rate theologian and thinker. As John Allen put it,
“There is a root kind of frustration that he must feel. This a mind that is so given to the quest for order, to creating logical links from A to B to C leading to the glories of Christian orthodoxy. Now to be put in a position of governing not only a Church that seems in meltdown in many ways, but a world which changes every 15 minutes as blog sites are refreshed and where the situation to which he is trying to respond is constantly in flux, I think has to be a source of angst.”

But also remember that this is a man whose instincts are also geared to searching for truth. On the recent flight to Fatima in May a posse of journalists on the papal plane took their seats and when one of them asked about any possible links between the predicted sufferings of the Church in the Fatima visions and its present difficulties, Pope Benedict replied with candour: “The greatest persecution of the Church doesn’t come from enemies on the outside, but is born in sin within the Church. The Church thus has a deep need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice.”

It was a decisive riposte to those in the Vatican who had sought to blame everything on the media and “idle gossip”. As my former prior in the Dominicans, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, told me: “The Pope is just too honest a man to accept the idea that all this is simply somebody else’s fault. He knows it comes from us and that we have to face it. And I find this all very promising and I hope it leads to a more honest church, a more transparent Church and a humbler Church.”

The predictions of an inflexible Vicar of Rome, “God’s Rottweiler”, in 2005 have been misplaced. Many of us got it wrong and I am happy to say so unambiguously. But I end on this thought. My old novice master, Herbert McCabe OP, was always reminding us of the massive dilemma at the heart of all theology: that as humans we are drawn to God and made to share union with the Creator but our ability to use words to reference all this is always doomed to failure, given the gap between our finite status and the transcendent force that lies beyond our grasp. T S Eliot puts it best in “Burnt Norton”:

words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

Pope Benedict, shy and retiring man that he is said to be, might be horrified at this suggestion. But might it be that one of the reasons is he is so hard to categorise, to put into that simple neat box, is that his writings, teachings and insights are an albeit imperfect reflection of that infinity and immutability that is the “peace that surpasseth all understanding”?

Mark Dowd’s film, Benedict: Trials of a Pope, will be broadcast on BBC Two on Wednesday September 15
at 7pm

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