It was a coldish day in April 2008, and an 81-year-old man, wearing a long but lightweight white coat against the chill, exited a limousine and began to walk down a long ramp, toward a place of terror and death. His trusted assistant walked discreetly behind him, nearby but not intrusive, so yes, he was very much alone. As cameras clicked noisily all about him, or filmed his progress amid the whirl of chopper blades, the man moved resolutely forward, upright but grim-faced, like a weary shepherd all too aware of his duties to the sheep.
As I watched Pope Benedict XVI make his way to the site of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — then still an ugly gaping hole near the water’s edge — the Scripture passage came, all unbidden: “ … when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you, and lead you where you do not want to go” (Jn 21: 18).
In perusing the first obituaries since his death was announced, it occurs to me that Joseph Ratzinger had been dressed and led away from his own desires for nearly all his life. First as a teenager, forced into the Hitler Youth, and then as a young seminarian conscripted into the German army, where he and all of his classmates were outfitted with uniforms and guns. Deserting that dubious service, he was then sent to a prisoner of war camp, where he again wore clothes not of his choosing.
For a time, Ratzinger did manage to go (and wear) what he wished, living in his beloved Bavaria as a priest and professor of theology, celebrating Mass, holding class, celebrating the sacraments and writing, always writing.
But the calls to duty beyond his preferences continued. His talents brought him to Rome, where the width and breadth of his intellect influenced the Second Vatican Council. At age 50, he would be appointed an archbishop (only to be elevated to the College of Cardinals three months later) by Pope John Paul II, who eventually brought him to Rome to head up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and never let him leave. In 2002, when a weary Ratzinger, aged 75, expressed a wish to retire, he was instead elected the dean of the College, confirmed in the role by the Polish pope.
In essence, he was told, “you’re not going anywhere, Joseph Ratzinger, but where you are led.”
And then he was elected to the papacy -- a role he never aspired to. As Pope Benedict XVI, he held out his hands and someone else dressed him and led him to the balcony, to the jubilant crowds of St. Peter’s Square and the waiting, often unfair, very often unfriendly, world. There he declared himself, “comforted by the fact that the Lord knows how to work and act even with insufficient instruments,” before he asked for prayers.
He asked for them again a few days later as he received the fisherman’s ring, “Pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me that I may learn to love his flock more and more -- in other words you, the holy Church, each one of you and all of you together. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves. Let us pray for one another, that the Lord will carry us, and that we will learn to carry one another.”
That’s quite a plea for a new papal shepherd. Did we even grasp the humble admissions this already-tired pope was making to us -- that whatever the realities and the state of his soul, as a human being he felt too deficient in his faith, too deficient in love and, most affectingly, too frightened of all that must come. His words were those of a man all-too-aware of the dangers before him, and thus before all of us -- of a man who understands that he is indeed being led where he would rather not go.
Even after announcing his retirement, Joseph Ratzinger remained respectful to his successor, living in Rome when his stated wish had been to return, finally, to his homeland.
He was obedient to where he was ever-led, but his responsibilities were always grave, as the custodial care of souls must be. Pope Benedict showed us his vulnerability at the very beginning of his papacy. At the end of it, he also managed to show us his great courage — courage born of faith — when he modeled to the whole church exactly what it meant to trust completely in the Holy Spirit, even if it meant still not getting what you wanted, which was simply to go home.
We join in prayer together that he is safely home, now.
Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor at OSV News.
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