Today, my heart is heavy. It is heavy, because one person close to my heart has died – and along with him, a piece of my life story. Besides my blood relatives and God the Father, this man was the next closest thing to a father I had. A spiritual father. Someone whom I called “Papa” – and not just as a pontifical title. And this father is someone I never met in person. I only had the chance to see him once in person – in a crowd, at a distance.
How, then, did I meet this father? In the same way I have met many of the men and women I admire the most: through written words in the pages of a book. That was how I came to know how this person was treading the same path as I was. This was how the bonds of kinship began to form and grow, taking root in my soul in an indelible way.
But let us start at the beginning.
The quest for truth always had a certain appeal to me, even as a nerdy and bookwormish teenager. In my eyes, no endeavor was more noble or more fascinating. At the time, I could not understand how so many of my classmates could think this search for truth as “boring,” yet finding pop culture or sports as somehow interesting. For me, it was always the reverse.
During the course of my studies, I stumbled upon the ancient Greeks. In them, I found interlocutors who shared my fascination with the truth. From these Greeks, I learned about a Trojan woman named Kassandra, who was given a blessing and a curse: On the one hand, she was a seer, able to prophesy the most hidden of truths. On the other hand, it was inevitable that she would be disbelieved.
It came to pass that Kassandra prophesied that the Trojans should not allow the legendary wooden horse inside the walls of the city. If she had been believed, Troy would have been saved. But she was not believed, as the curse foresaw.
Kassandra’s story taught me a terrible lesson: he who speaks truth in a fallen world is cursed to not be believed.
Other Greek philosophers echoed this lesson. Following the same line of thought, Plato spoke of people imprisoned inside a dark cave, who confuse the shadows projected in the walls with reality. Plato described a prisoner who was able to escape the cave and see reality as it was, under the light of the Sun. When this man went back into the cave to tell the others, they did not believe him. Instead, the other prisoners turned against him and even tried to kill him when he tried to free them of their bondage and blindness.
A few years after I read that story, another wise man brought to my attention that Plato went even farther. This wise man wrote:
In the Republic the great philosopher asks what is likely to be the position of a completely just man in this world. He comes to the conclusion that a man’s righteousness is only complete and guaranteed when he takes on the appearance of unrighteousness, for only then is it clear that he does not follow the opinion of men but pursues justice only for its own sake.
So according to Plato the truly just man must be misunderstood and persecuted in this world; indeed, Plato goes so far as to write:
“They will say that our just man will be scourged, racked, fettered, will have his eyes burnt out, and at last, after all manner of suffering, will be crucified.”
The wise man who wrote this was Joseph Ratzinger and the book was Introduction to Christianity. An overview of Christian doctrine with the Apostles’ Creed as its outline, this was one of the first books by Ratzinger that I read. I read it, and I got hooked, and I have not tired of reading him since.
When I saw the small, awkward figure emerge on the balcony of St. Peter’s, he immediately seized my attention. He seemed so out of place. He was clad with all the trappings of pontifical royalty, which seemed to smother and overwhelm him like a child wearing his grandfather’s clothes. It was such a momentous occasion, the first “Habemus Papam” of my lifetime. And yet, how different he was from the only pope I knew until then, the strong and charismatic John Paul II.
There, standing on the Loggia, his frail hands waved with tremulous self-consciousness. His smile was equally shy, yet genuine. I thought of him then and there as the kind of man I could follow. He obviously wasn’t arrogant, and it was also clear that he knew the weight of the responsibility that had fallen on his shoulders. Years later, when he visited my home country, I learned that this first impression of mine was also shared by many of my countrymen, to their amazement. How different Pope Benedict was from the way he was portrayed by the media! The truth was that they had never known him before, and that their impressions of him had been shaped through the lens of popular media.
This was at the root of the problem. Not everyone shared my first impression on the day of his election. The man I saw had an utter lack of arrogance, yet others saw a man brimming with it. While my curiosity led me to dive into the writings of this figure (which had begun to flood the bookshelves in every bookstore), others began to twist his every word to paint him as something he was not: the “Panzer Cardinal,” the Grand Inquisitor, the former Nazi.
The Kassandra curse began to spread.
In addition to his new name, Benedict XVI, he also chose a motto: Cooperatores Veritatis. The cooperator with truth. Yet, as Kassandra could testify, he who speaks the truth is bound to be disbelieved. As Plato would teach, he who speaks the truth is bound to be persecuted. As Jesus could proclaim from his Cross, he who speaks the truth is bound to be crucified.
Likewise, a pope is bound to be resisted by the forces who oppose his favorite virtue. This is why Francis’s emphasis on mercy is resisted by those who seek a truth without charity. Just as those who dissent from Francis’s teaching do not proclaim truth at all, Benedict’s focus on truth was resisted by those who sought charity without truth. Which, as Benedict so aptly taught, is no charity at all.
From his election until his resignation, Benedict’s most formidable adversaries were those who espoused relativism. No wonder. Benedict repeatedly taught that relativism was the philosophy where the “existence of one valid truth for all” could not be affirmed. The adherents of relativism would then, obviously, stand opposed to someone who “rejoiced in the truth,” who tried to “articulate truth with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life” (Caritas in Veritate, 1).
Just before the conclave that would elect him, Ratzinger delivered a homily to his fellow cardinals, coining the phrase “dictatorship of relativism.” This homily came to be considered programmatic of his pontificate. More importantly, Ratzinger would forever bear the marks of this homily in his own life. The dictatorship of relativism would attempt to silence or undermine him every step of the way, ironically proving that he was correct in describing it as a dictatorship.
This dictatorship was on display during the shameful display of closed-mindedness in the cancelation of a planned speech at the University La Sapienza in 2008. In this episode we can see how, despite their purported tolerance, relativists are incapable of allowing anyone – no matter how intellectually prolific – to think and speak outside the box they have themselves created. For all their talk about multiple truths, they sure seemed defensive about their own truth, imposing it on others without any opportunity for contradiction.
This does not merely apply to situations of open censorship. There is also a subtler form of censorship: undermining truth, not by prohibiting it, but by asphyxiating it.
Time and time again, the media twisted everything Benedict said in ways that did not accurately represent his thought. One early example was how they reported Benedict’s words out of context following his historic lecture at Regensburg. Many other instances soon followed. It was done in such a way to make him sound like a fundamentalist bigot or a clumsy old man stumbling upon gaffe after gaffe.
It was a media cabal, pure and simple. Just like today, with the media cabal against Pope Francis, Benedict was subjected to a hermeneutic of suspicion. Every single word or action was portrayed in the worst possible light and used to validate a prejudiced image of the pontiff. They painted an image of someone who should be rejected by anyone with a modicum of sense.
Whether the media did it due to invincible ignorance, from ideologically-driven intellectual dishonesty, or to construct a compelling and sensational narrative, the damage was done. Benedict’s message was largely unheard, as Kassandra’s curse demands.
But his message was not completely unheard. Many of us knew that when the media reported on him, he could never have said the things they attributed to him. Speaking personally, I knew he was not bigoted, and I knew he was not stupid. Because I knew him. I read him. I listened to him. I studied him. Him, not the false construction the media distorted and sold. I could see the vast chasm separating the true Benedict from the caricature forged behind smoke and mirrors. This caricature could not stand, because it had no actual substance – it was not rooted in reality. It was not rooted in truth.
The truth was there, in those words brimming with wisdom, in those gestures filled with charity. But that was not all. We might apply Benedict’s insights from Deus Caritas Est to him: just as Christianity is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with a person, engaging the life and work of Benedict XVI is not the result of adopting a set of rules or an abstract theological framework, but an encounter with a person. This person, Joseph Ratzinger, was a gentle soul, full of intellectual and human value. He never sought the limelight of the papacy, but he nevertheless sacrificed himself – moved by his love for Christ and the Church.
There were, sadly, people who never learned this lesson about Benedict. For them, learning Benedict was precisely an intellectual exercise. And they confused this with the faith. Ironically, they did so in spite of Benedict’s own warnings in Deus Caritas Est. Just like the secular media, they did not follow him, but a distorted image of him. When reality shattered their illusions, they adopted the same errors they once condemned.
When Pope Francis was elected, many Catholics concluded that his teachings were not reconcilable with what they thought the Church taught. The new pontiff challenged their preconceived ideas of what the faith actually is or entails. And they did exactly what secular and progressive Catholic media had done before them: they tried to undermine the truth, by asphyxiating it under layers of misinformation.
In retrospect, this was also happening during Benedict’s pontificate. When Caritas in Veritate (my favorite papal encyclical of all time) was published, some pundits were quick to compartmentalize it, separating the parts that were in sync with their political ideas from those that contradicted them. These pundits appropriated Benedict’s authority to validate the teachings they liked and they found ways to explain away the ones they didn’t. Never mind that Benedict himself conferred his authority to the whole document and not just parts of it.
After Pope Francis’s election, this only became more aggravated. Perhaps it started with “lettergate,” in which a letter from Benedict praising Francis was found to not have been published in full. The Vatican publishing house asked Pope Benedict to endorse a collection of books by various theologians about the theology of Pope Francis. Benedict responded with a letter in which he wrote, “The small volumes show, rightly, that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation, and they therefore help to see the inner continuity between the two pontificates, despite all the differences of style and temperament.”
It was soon pointed out that the third and final paragraph of the letter was not included in the marketing material for the books. It was ultimately revealed that the missing paragraph included Benedict’s criticism of one of the contributing theologians (explaining, but not justifying, the publisher’s decision to omit it from the marketing material). This missing paragraph did not in any way change the praise the Benedict wrote for his successor. Nevertheless, papal critics focused on the controversy of the missing paragraph. They clung to the controversy as an excuse to suffocate the truth: that Benedict really had affirmed the continuity between himself and Pope Francis.
From that point onward, the Pope Emeritus’ repeated acts of fidelity towards Francis were consistently drowned under waves of silence or misinterpretation. Benedict’s public actions contradicted the anti-Francis media narrative that was starting to take shape, and they had to be distorted so that they could advance their ulterior agenda. Just as the secular media cabal worked to undermine Benedict, ostensibly “Catholic” did the same against Francis. Benedict was no longer portrayed as someone who had freely chosen – according to his conscience – the best course of action for the Church he loved by resigning. Instead, he was depicted as a victim of a dark conspiracy theory – someone who had been pressured to leave the Church to the care of wolves rather than to fight and confront them.
Just as secular media once twisted every word that Pope Benedict spoke in order to make him look bad, many in anti-Francis media began twisting Pope Emeritus Benedict’s every word to make Pope Francis look bad.
Sometimes, Benedict didn’t need to say or write anything at all. Just by existing, he was often used as a kind of sponge, absorbing papal authority away from Francis. Benedict’s mere presence was sometimes weaponized (against his will) to undermine the legitimacy and authority of Pope Francis’s teachings. A puppet image of Benedict was created: he was propped up as a competitor for the throne of Peter, a rival in an imagined dispute with Pope Francis.
This horrible state of affairs reached its zenith with the shameful way he was weaponized in the aftermath of the Synod of the Amazon. One of the topics discussed during the synod was the possibility of ordaining married men in the Amazon basin to help provide sacraments for the indigenous people there, and Pope Francis was working on an apostolic exhortation that was expected to address the issue. Many of Francis’s critics were hostile to the proposal and some of them tried to enlist Benedict in a plan to force Francis’s hand. They named him, against his wishes, as co-author of a book that tried to publicly pressure the reigning pope. In doing so, Francis’s critics have cast a shadow on one of the last works of Benedict’s extraordinary intellectual corpus.
Benedict deserved better than this.
The cure for the curse of Kassandra
Now, Benedict is gone from this world. He cannot be used again in such ways for nefarious purposes. Those who rail day and night against Francis will have to find another pretext for their rebellion. As for the secular media, it had mostly already lost interest in him since his resignation. The man can now rest in peace.
But even if the man is not with us anymore, his work remains. The Second Vatican Council, of which he was an important architect, is indelibly inscribed in the history of the Church. Benedict’s encyclicals on love and hope remain forever in the Church’s body of magisterial documents. God even granted Benedict his wish – the opportunity to finish writing his treatise on Christology. This was the dream that led him to ask several times to resign from his position as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and, afterwards, for which he asked to not be elected pope.
Maybe this is the cure for the curse of Kassandra. The words echo long after the mouth that uttered them is gone. As hindsight and temporal distancing allow us to better appraise his contributions, the layers of bias and distortion that third parties tried to impute them will peel away. Eventually, only the truth will remain, purified by the years. And then, Benedict’s genius will finally be allowed to shine undisturbed, as it should have happened during our generation. When that day comes, I am sure God will allow Benedict to look down upon the earth and see it, as a vindication of the cross he had to endure during his life.
As for me, I have no doubt that Benedict will one day be named among the canonized saints and the doctors of the Church. I am honored to have lived during his lifetime and especially during his pontificate. I am pleased to call myself a Ratzingerian, and to have such a formidable mind help in the formation of my identity as a Catholic.
Farewell, Joseph Ratzinger; goodbye, Pope Benedict, my beloved spiritual father! May the God of consolation permit me to actually meet you in person one day, and to walk the fields of Heaven with you, discussing all sorts of stimulating topics. Then, I will be able to thank you for everything you have done for me, and to tell you how sorry I am for not having met you in person, and how sorry I am for what you had to endure. On that day, Kassandra will be nothing more than a memory, dimmed by the intense light of truth you so much love.
Image: Vatican Media.
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.