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Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI

I am an impulsive buyer. As is my practice, whichever airport I am in, I spend some time at the bookshop there. That is where I come across new books and new authors. Unlike some books like the ancient text on the science of desire which are cellophane-wrapped, most books are available for a quick perusal. 

When I say it is a nice feeling to touch, lift, hold it and open, some of you may wonder whether I am writing about something else. No, I am still on the subject of books. Only a book-lover knows how enticing an attractively produced book can be.

No, it was not the attraction of the book that forced me to pick up the  Last Testament In His Own Words by Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald (Bloomsbury, Pages 258, Rs 499). Rather, it was the subject of the book that attracted me. After all, it was asserted on the back cover: “Pope Benedict XVI, the only modern-day Pope to retire whilst in office, now finally breaks his silence”.

I read most of the book in one go during my New Delhi-Kochi flight and it is a measure of its appeal that I could do so. After reading the book, I can say that I did not find anything startling in it. True, I got an insight into the mind of Pope Emeritus, the only one ever to hold this title in the 2000-year history of St. Peter’s throne. I did not need anything more.

It is autobiographical in nature, though it was written by a German journalist who interviewed Pope Benedict. It has a question-answer format. Since it is claimed that he had read the text and approved it before publication, the book has authenticity too!

When on February 11, 2013, he announced his resignation as Pope and fixed his date of departure as February 28 the same year, it startled tens of millions of Catholics the world over. Of course, he faced the allegation that by resigning he had secularised the post as something that can be given away. In a thousand years, he was the first to do so.

A comparable event happened in the Mar Thoma Church, based at Thiruvalla in Kerala, when Bishop Chrysostom resigned as Metropolitan and got an Emeritus status. Today he is more active  and more popular than his successor whose resignation, many consider, would be the best thing that could happen to the church.

Having said this I must also add that there is little comparison between Benedict and Chrysostom. While the former is a recluse by nature, the latter revels in his new-found status as Metropolitan Emeritus. They are, in fact, a study in contrast.

The circumstances in which they resigned are quite dissimilar. One quit because of the machinations of his successor while the other resigned of his own volition. The thought that he could do nothing more must have weighed on him when he voluntarily quit the high office which has the highest number of Facebook followers from  Albania to Algeria and Morocco to Mississippi.

At least in India, the one who relinquishes, the one who quits evokes greater admiration than the one who grabs power. Gandhi became the Mahatma when he relinquished his upper garment in favour of a woman who did not have a piece of cloth to cover her breasts (See the film  Gandhi by Richard Attenborough). I remember the scene because the woman who played that role was Noor Fatima, my colleague Amalendu Sinha’s wife.

Lalbahadur Shastri is still remembered as much for coining the slogan  Jai Jawan Jai Kisan as for quitting as Railway Minister following a major train accident. This has something to do with Hinduism which vests in the relinquisher the halo of divinity. A good Hindu aspires to reach the stage of  vanaprastha!

It is said that what matters is not how long a person lived but how he spent his life. Jesus lived only for 33 years with his public ministry lasting not more than 10 per cent of his total life. Pope Benedict spent eight years as the Bishop of Rome. His pontificate lasted 2,872 days, to be exact.

His act of renunciation has catapulted him into a realm wholly his own. When he became the 265th Pope on April 19, 2005, I was dead sure that he would make it to the post. It was not because as Dean of the College of Cardinals, he presided over the funeral ceremonies for John Paul II.

No one was more at home in the Vatican than Joseph Alois Ratzinger, his baptismal name. In other words, he was the natural choice to fill the void created by the death of John Paul II, easily  one of the most charismatic Popes who was even nicknamed as “God’s Politician”. It is also a fact that Benedict was often compared to his predecessor despite the fact that they were poles apart.

Though he mentioned “lack of strength of mind and body” as the reason for his resignation, it is a fact that he was overshadowed by his predecessor. He would, however, be remembered for the scholasticism, if not wisdom, that he brought to the office of the Vicar of Christ.

Ratzinger had little pastoral experience when he was appointed as Archbishop of Munich and Freising on March 28, 1977. Within a month of his consecration as Bishop on May 28, 1977, he was appointed Cardinal by Pope Paul VI. Such a double promotion was considered extraordinary.

He was more a scholar than a priest. A student of his biography would invariably note certain unusual features in his life. As a young professor and budding writer, he was a liberal. 

Hinduism and certain cults in it attracted his attention so much that his students even “complained” that he taught more about the oriental religion than the occidental. He appreciated Sanskrit, though there is no evidence that he could speak or write in that language with any measure of success.

His inaugural lecture was on the theme “The God of Faith and the God of Philosophy”. He quotes Augustine, who found the Old Testament stories “unbelievable and frivolous”. When the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not interest him, he turned his attention to philosophy, “then fell into Manicheism, and only after that discovered what would remain his modus operandi for the rest of his life.

“In the Platonists, I learned, “In the beginning was the Word. In the Christians I learned, “The Word became flesh”. And it is only thus that the Word came to me”. He adds, “This fascinated me. I came to the conclusion: of course, we need the God that has spoken, the God that speaks, the living God. The God that touches the heart, that knows me and loves me. But he must be accessible somehow to the mind.”

In 1968 he published his first major book  Introduction to Christianity which became an instant hit. It is in many ways like C.S. Lewis’ famous title  Mere Christianity which served as an anchor of faith to many, including this writer. As Pope, he called on Fidel Castro, who was not in the best of health. While taking leave of him, the Cuban strongman asked the Pope to send him some reading material. Among the books he sent was  Introduction to Christianity.

It is not known when the Cuban leader read the book or not, but millions of readers found it so useful that there is certainty that it would continue to be read in the coming decades too.

There is every evidence to suggest that he would have loved reading and writing books and enjoying the company of his students and peers but for John Paul II appointing him as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It might appear unbelievable that Ratzinger extracted a promise from the Pope before accepting the post in the Roman Curia. The promise was that he would be allowed to continue writing. The Pope did not consider the condition as an affront, for he looked for and found a precedent that allowed a person holding such a position to write.

As the Prefect, he took an ideological position that the way to go was the way of the cross. He no longer spoke of multiple ways and he wanted the church to be more classical than liberal. As a close observer of Protestantism in the West, particularly Germany, he knew how the Protestant Church had become dissipative. He was worried more about the decline of the Catholic faith than the decline of the numbers in churches in the West.

For any writer there comes a time when he or she believes that little else is left to write about. Such a time would have come to him when he published the three-volume meditation on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ beginning with  Jesus of Nazareth published in 2007. He became the first Pope to publish such a book while he held the highest office in this world.

Few other Popes found themselves facing a barrage of criticism save the one who presided over the church during the Third Reich. While the Jews did not blame the then Pope for siding with Hitler, many in the West took him to task for what they called “collaborating” with the Nazis.

My reference here is to his speech entitled “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections” at a German university he visited after becoming Pope. In the speech delivered eight years ago, he “characteristically took up a knotty concept -- the interplay of faith and reason. He wanted to show how reason untethered from faith leads to fanaticism and violence.

“To illustrate that case, Benedict dug up an obscure 14th-century dialogue between a long-forgotten Byzantine Christian emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, and a Persian scholar about the concept of violence in Islam.

"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached," Benedict quoted the emperor as saying to his Islamic interlocutor.

In Islamic teaching, Benedict said, "God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” While the Pope was attacked left and right for criticising Islam, the Western Press consciously or otherwise did not publicise what he said towards the end of his lecture:

“The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul,” Pope Benedict said.

He quoted Paleologus: “God…is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...”

Who could have any objection to this line of thinking? He was more sinned against than sinning. The Pope’s case reminded me of what happened to BJP leader L.K. Advani. He heard a speech made by Swami Ranganathananda, who headed the Ramakrishna Mission, at Lahore and he quoted a speech made by Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Without understanding him, everyone started abusing him for giving a certificate of secularism to Jinnah, a hated figure in India. He was like Pope Benedict and King Lear “more sinned against than sinning”.

The book throws light on Benedict’s life during the war, his family, his closeness to his mother and elder sister, the role he played in the Second Vatican Council, the theological disputations he had and the many challenges he faced as Pope. Did he have any love life? He moves away from the subject by saying that “If one has not felt love, one cannot talk of it. I felt it first at home with my father, my mother, my siblings. And, well, I would not like to go into private details now, but I have been touched by it in different dimensions and forms”. A beautiful book about a beautiful person!

The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at

(Published on 19th December 2016, Volume XXVIII, Issue 51)#