Pope Benedict XVI passed one year ago today. As we prepare for 2024, we are reminded of his teachings and faith that GOD IS PRESENT NOW.
Some sixty years ago, Joseph Ratzinger foresaw the need for the Church to make an exodus in order to meet the Lord. The theme of exodus was ever-present in his preaching. On December 31, as the Church marks the one-year anniversary of Benedict XVI setting out on pilgrimage from this life to the next, his prophetic words offer inspiration and guidance for our own journey of faith at a moment when it can feel bewildering – to say the least – to be a Roman Catholic.
Preaching a series of Advent reflections to university students in the Cathedral of Műnster in December 1964, the young Father Ratzinger did not hesitate to challenge them – and us – to understand that the old way of doing things no longer works for the Church. The individual Christian as well as the Church as a whole, said Ratzinger, can no longer hold themselves out to the world as having all the answers. There is far too much contradiction and heartache in the modern world for anyone to pretend that Christian faith can answer man’s deepest questions in a way that simplistically “explains everything.”
Rather, Ratzinger said, preaching amidst the literal rubble of the Third Reich, today’s Christian, if he or she is honest, realizes that the state of being unredeemed is not merely something that existed in ages past. Rather, being unredeemed “is a fact in our own lives and in the midst of the Church.” We stand like Job with numerous questions and seemingly very few answers.
“It is precisely to God that we can and must bring, in complete honesty, the whole burden of our life . . . even if, like Job, we have no answer to give about it all, and the only thing left is to leave it to God himself to answer and to tell him how we are standing here in our darkness with no answers.”
Faced with this sense of having no answers, Ratzinger noted that the Christian today faces a particular risk:
“We are afraid that our faith will not be able to stand the full, glaring light of the facts.”
But a faith that wants to put its head in the sand and ignore the problems that surround us – both in the world and in the Church – is actually no faith at all, said Ratzinger.
“A faith that will not account for half of the facts or even more is actually, in essence, a kind of refusal of faith.”
“In contrast,” Ratzinger proposed, “true believing means looking the whole of reality in the face, unafraid and with an open heart, even if it goes against the picture of faith that, for whatever reason, we make for ourselves.”
Nearly sixty years later, Joseph Ratzinger’s words speak no less powerfully and poignantly to the present situation of the Church.
So many “progressive” Catholics wish to construct a church that is divorced from God’s Word, from obedience to the Commandments. Progressives could never tolerate Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI’s insistence on the unchanging moral law and the beauty of the perennial liturgy.
And yet many “traditional” Catholics also found and still find Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI hard to swallow, because his leadership and vision did not square with the picture of the Church that they have made for themselves: he refused to accept the idea of a Church whose essence was the preservation of the status quo. Instead, Ratzinger relentlessly called the faithful to undertake a pilgrimage – an exodus – whose essential prerequisite is a readiness to make ourselves uncomfortable in order to go forth and meet the Lord.
Ratzinger continued his reflections with the students by pondering what the Advent of the Lord that we are celebrating during these holy days of Christmas actually means:
“God cannot be found except by going to meet him as the One who is coming, who is waiting for us to make a start and demanding that we do so. We cannot find God except in this exodus, in going out from the coziness of our present situation into what is hidden: the brightness of God that is coming.”
What challenging words these are for the Church at this moment! There can be no complacent acceptance of coziness in how we live our faith or in how we worship. Rather, we must go forth – Ite, missa est – into the unknown. Understanding this mystery is an imperative task for contemporary believers as they wrestle with the chaos that, at least outwardly, seems to have engulfed the Church.
Ratzinger proposed a model for contemporary faith: those most unlikely first believers, the shepherds of Bethlehem, who made an exodus of their own, hastening to the manger to adore the Newborn Child:
“God cannot be found – even in the Church – except by our climbing the mountain and entering the cloud of the incognito of God, who in this world is the Hidden One. The same mystery was intimated to the shepherds at Bethlehem, who were told, “This will be a sign for you, you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” The shepherds will have to believe in the presence of God in this hiddenness. Their “sign” demands that they recognize that God is not to be found in the comprehensible systems of this world but can only be found at times when we grow beyond them.”
What does this “growing beyond the systems of this world” mean? Ratzinger offers us much to ponder. Perhaps these words offer a key to understanding his mysterious and bewildering Declaratio of February 11, 2013, by which he appeared to resign the office of the papacy. This too was a moment of exodus for Joseph Ratzinger, one that remains little understood by observers on both the right and the left, both inside and outside the Church.
On another occasion, some 40 years later, Joseph Ratzinger, now the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, again gathered with young students to ponder the meaning of the Christian faith in a world that is full of contradictions. This time it was at Marienfeld outside Cologne, for the celebration of World Youth Day in August 2005. Once again, he chose to speak about the theme of exodus and pilgrimage present in the Christmas mystery, this time focusing on the faith of the Magi as they fell down in worship before the Christ Child:
“Outwardly, their journey was now over. They had reached their goal. But at this point a new journey began for them, an inner pilgrimage which changed their whole lives. Their mental picture of the infant King they were expecting to find must have been very different. The new King, to whom they now paid homage, was quite unlike what they were expecting. In this way they had to learn that God is not as we usually imagine him to be. This was where their inner journey began.”
Again, how these words challenge the Church at this moment! So many of us, if we are honest, have a very different mental picture of how the Church ought to be, both on the local and universal levels, and we often find ourselves quite frustrated with the Church as she actually is right now. The Church is not as we imagine Her to be… and praise God for this fact! For Her present hiddenness calls us to an inner journey, to change our thinking about the Church, and this change is precisely where faith begins.
“They had to change their ideas about power, about God and about man, and in so doing, they also had to change themselves. Now they were able to see that God’s power is not like that of the powerful of this world. God’s ways are not as we imagine them or as we might wish them to be. God is different – this is what they now come to realize. And it means that they themselves must now become different, they must learn God’s ways.”
All of us, no matter where we find ourselves along the path of faith on the last day of 2023, are called to become different. Being aware of this call is the beginning of an exodus, one that we are each called to make both individually and collectively.
Pope Benedict concluded his remarks at World Youth Day in Cologne by inviting believers to join him on pilgrimage:
“Christ is present now as he was then in Bethlehem. He invites us to that inner pilgrimage which is called adoration. Let us set off on this pilgrimage of the spirit and let us ask him to be our guide. Amen.”
This is the exodus faith that is essential to being a Catholic Christian on the threshold of 2024. This is the challenging call and legacy that has been left us by our Holy Father Benedict XVI. May his words and his prayer continue to guide the Church as she makes her pilgrimage to the Father’s house. And may each of us be given through the Holy Spirit a share in Joseph Ratzinger’s exodus faith.