The Pope, I wrongly informed a journalist before World Youth Day, would use the Mass in Cologne to launch a broadside against the Dictatorship of Relativism.
I was not the only one surprised to find that, instead of an Armada, there came a humble man, almost uncertain, floating down the Rhine on a ferry. No crusader this, he put you in mind of a professor recently released from a lecture hall. His voice, curiously high-pitched, was clear and gentle; even his German was softened by his rustic Bavarian accent. His arrival for the open-air Mass was the most subdued any of the reporters who covered the Vatican could remember. He wagged no fingers, did not shuffle to music, and smiled coyly at the loud applause from youth in Benedetto T-shirts. When the crowd became too boisterous he raised a finger to his lips.
If this was an offensive, it was free of offence. It roused prayer, not adulation; it was less holy crusade than meditation for a silent retreat. While Catholics for a Free Choice gave out condoms, the Pope never even mentioned contraception. Those who hoped for a hammering of the heretics were left twiddling their whips.
‘It was his humility that captured hearts,’ clapped The Times.
The Word Youth Day homily was just that: not a manifesto; not a Gettysburg address; not even rhetoric tailored to television. It was a superb, old-fashioned piece of catechetics, unafraid to be bookish, which paid young people the compliment of not patronizing them. In the age of CNN and MTV it takes real daring to explain the Eucharist in front of a million young people by dwelling on the nuances of the word 'adoration' in Greek (proskynesis, in case you wondered).
It was a flawless performance: the Pope smiled and waved, radiated hope, reached out to Protestants, Jews and Muslims, and confirmed hundreds of thousands of young people in their faith. Not only did Cologne exorcise the Panzerkardinal demons, but Benedict "left critics taking a new look at the Church he leads" according to the Reuters religion editor, Tom Heneghan. "It was his humility," clapped The Times, "that captured hearts".
Some have tried to explain the surprise at this "new" Ratzinger by depicting it as a role-reversal, or even a return to the "pre-conservative" Ratzinger. But anyone who knew him, or read his memoirs, had no trouble recognising him. "The Pope has swept away much of what clouded his reputation in this country in recent years," said the Archbishop of Mainz, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who once crossed swords with the former CDF prefect over abortion counselling centres in Germany. Benedict, said Lehmann, was never the Rottweiller of popular imagination, and Cologne showed it. "He charmed everyone."
The idea of two Ratzingers is anyway false: the "progressive" peritus of Vatican II is of a piece with the "conservative" of the 1970s. The Pope's memoir makes clear that what troubled him at that time were not the innovations of the Council (he helped after all to bring them about) but the attempt by some to see them as a discontinuity with the preconciliar era.
It falls to Benedict to make clear why what the Church teaches sets us free.
"Radical continuity", in fact, is the key to his style. He is developing the pontificate of John Paul II not by trying to stand in his shoes but by taking them into new territory. If he walks differently, it is only in part because his is a contrasting temperament—cerebral and retiring, where John Paul II's was visceral and mercurial. But if he chose in Cologne to propose rather than oppose, it was a conscious strategy—the fruit of discernment in the fortnight-long daily pre-conclave meetings of the cardinals in Rome, when they weighed up the Church and the world, and the Wojtyla legacy.
In journalism—and this is true of the best sermons—the rule is "show, don't tell". John Paul II was good at telling; he exhorted better than anyone. He could capture a crowd and encourage it to look heavenwards. But if you were not with him, you were left gazing elsewhere. One of the questions that troubled the cardinals in Rome was why, when John Paul II was such an effective communicator, so many could admire him but ignore his message. And why, when the Church's prestige on the international arena was so great, Europeans in particular were staying away from churches.
"There are many ways of communicating," the Pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, told journalists in Cologne. "There is not just one way." Asked about the way Benedict excels, he was crisp. "Concepts", he told them.
A concept is a framework for understanding; an effective concept opens the mind to embrace a truth. It is the theologian's charism—to clarify by an appeal to reason. The assent of the mind opens the door to the assent of the heart. It is showing, not telling.
Pope Benedict is a superb conceptualist. At his inaugural Mass, for example, he pithily identified the main difference between ideology and Christianity—a difference not of aims but of means. Ideologies "justify the destruction of whatever would stand in the way of progress and the liberation of humanity," he said, whereas "God, who became a lamb, tells us that the world is saved by those who are crucified, not by those who crucify." Dwell on that concept, and you clean the window onto modern history.
Christianity 'was not an intellectual system' but 'an encounter, a love story.'
In 1978 John Paul II inherited a Church that was unsure, after the battles under Paul VI, what it believed. In 2005 he left no one in doubt. It falls to Benedict to make clear why the Church believes what it believes, to show that what it teaches sets us free. Benedict's task is to convey the beauty of belief, and that believing must involve belonging.
In an interview before Cologne, he said he wanted young people to know "how beautiful it is to be a Christian." People think "Christianity is composed of laws and bans which one has to keep and is therefore toilsome and burdensome", whereas being Christian "is like having wings." Or consider his words at the funeral of , the . Guissani understood, he said, that Christianity "was not an intellectual system" but "an encounter, a love story."
Love and condemnation sit awkwardly together. So in Cologne Benedict did not deplore promiscuity but pointed out that "freedom is not simply about enjoying life, but rather about living by the measure of truth and goodness, so that we ourselves can become good." Rather than deploring relativism or supermarket religion, Benedict explained why DIY faith "cannot ultimately help us. It may be comfortable, but at times of crisis we are left to ourselves."
The papacy's new humility is well suited to a Church whose transgressions are all too well known. John Paul II bravely confessed the sins of history, but hesitated to admit those of the present. He was a product of the Church's struggle against Communism, when weakness and division could be exploited by its enemies. But in a sceptical age, suspicious of propaganda, teachers only convince if they face facts. When, in his meeting with Muslims, Benedict rhetorically asked how many evil wars have been waged in the name of God, it was the kind of question you might hear at a dinner party. When he said there was much about the Church that was troubling—"it is a net with good and bad fish"—he was conceding what is self-evident to his listeners. When he said that "secularism and dechristianisation continue to advance" and that "the influence of Catholic ethics and morals is in constant decline," he was stating what is obvious to us but not, we worry, to popes. Because Benedict sees things as they are, we listen more carefully to how he thinks they should be.
Benedict left critics taking a new look at the Church he leads.
Benedict, as his choice of name made clear, looks to the counter-culture of European monasticism in the early Middle Ages, which served society precisely by being quietly—but no less awkwardly—in contradiction to it. Hence his emphasis, in Cologne, on fostering vital cells of church life which emphasise quality not quantity ("Form communities of faith!" he urged). Gone is the triumphant city on the hill; Benedict's is the era of leaven in the mass, of small but vibrant faith groups in parishes, of movements and associations which operate like underground cells, attracting believers and supplying the vitality which the Church needs above the ground.
Pope Benedict has a style. And he has a strategy. If we find them hard to make out, it could be that our eyes need to adjust. We are so used to waiting for a flag-waving crusade that we fail to notice the flap, flap of a monk's cowl.