The Real Benedict XVI

Reports Reveal Warmth and Openness

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ROME, APRIL 23, 2005 ( Some media reports following the announcement of the new Pope rolled out ready-made stereotypes of the man, portraying him as an inflexible authoritarian. Other reports, especially in the British media, were obsessed by the idea of a German Pope who had lived his teen years under the Nazi regime.

However, a number of personal testimonies published this week reveal an entirely different personality. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now archbishop of Genoa, Italy, was for many years second-in-charge to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Italian prelate was interviewed Thursday by the newspaper Il Messaggero.

The archbishop spoke of a man of «great humanity, a lover of nature and of music.» Cardinal Bertone also testified to Cardinal Ratzinger’s openness and simplicity in dealing with people, and how over the years in Rome he has formed friendships with many people.

Monsignor Alejandro Cifres, chief archivist for 14 years in the doctrinal congregation, in articles published by the Spanish daily ABC on Thursday and Friday also gave testimony concerning the new Pope.

When he first came to Rome in 1981 to take up his post as prefect of the congregation he did not even take possession of the apartment that would normally be his by right, as it was occupied by an elderly cardinal, whom he did not wish to disturb. The apartment in which Cardinal Ratzinger has remained in all these years in Rome, is not one as large or well-appointed as would normally correspond to his post, and is adorned with secondhand furniture. It is also located on the other side of St. Peter’s Square from his office, instead of being in the same building.

Monsignor Cifres commented that during his years of working at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, it was Cardinal Ratzinger who gave the staff an example of dedication, rising early and going to bed late so as to deal expeditiously with the important matters that required attention.

Moreover, Monsignor Cifres explained that Cardinal Ratzinger on numerous occasions had asked Pope John Paul II to be allowed to leave his post and return to his theological studies. He repeated that desire to his staff on his 78th birthday, just two days before the conclave started.

Along Borgo Pio

Friday’s edition of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica published a number of commentaries from shop-owners along the street close by where Cardinal Ratzinger lived for some 24 years, Borgo Pio.

In the afternoons the future Pope would often go out for a walk along the streets near his apartment and would stop to greet the shopkeepers along the Borgo Pio. Mario, a fruit-seller, recalled how once the cardinal asked him which apples to buy to best prepare a strudel. And electrician Angelo Mosca spoke of the time he had gone to the cardinal’s apartment to fix a problem, and how he had remained in a relaxed conversation with him for an hour, «just as if we were old friends.»

British journalist Charles Moore, writing in Wednesday’s Telegraph, described a meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger some years ago. Three things impressed Moore about the prelate. First, «his embarrassing courtesy.» Moore recounted how the cardinal carefully read an article he had brought with him in which the journalist described his conversion to Catholicism.

The second striking point was Cardinal Ratzinger’s intellectual curiosity: «He was not a man living in the past, but rather one tackling with a civilized and clear mind the new challenges of human thought.» The third characteristic was the cardinal’s open manner and willingness to answer any question put to him.

And another journalist, David Quinn, writing in Tuesday’s Irish Independent, described a meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger some 10 years ago. The cardinal dedicated an hour to his questions. «During that time he was courtesy itself, entirely gracious and patient with my questions,» said Quinn.

Remembering a birthday

U.S. cardinals also recalled the new Pope’s affability, noted an Associated Press report Wednesday. Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali said that in the midst of the excitement during the conclave after the ballots were tallied, Benedict XVI took the time to wish him a happy birthday. «With all the things he had to think about, he had the very human touch,» said Cardinal Rigali.

And the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, recalled how some years ago Cardinal Ratzinger took the time to personally wish him well before he became an archbishop. «‘He is a very lovely and loving person,» Cardinal Egan said. «I think you’re going to like him very much.»

This opinion was echoed by Cardinal George Pell, archbishop of Sydney, who for 10 years was a consulting member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Describing his experiences of working with Cardinal Ratzinger to a reporter from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Thursday, the archbishop described the new Pope as «the soul of courtesy.» And, «When people generally see him in the way we have, who have worked with him, they will understand this much more clearly,» Cardinal Pell added.

Preserving the truth

During his years as prefect for the doctrinal congregation, Cardinal Ratzinger took disciplinary action against a number of theologians who had departed from the magisterium of the Church.

Father Thomas Frauenlob, rector of St. Michael’s Seminary in Traunstein, Germany, where the future Pope studied, commented to the Associated Press in a report last Tuesday that «Only someone who knows tradition is able to shape the future.»

Father Frauenlob described Benedict XVI as «a subtle thinker with a deep understanding of Catholic tradition and a personal touch he’s not often given credit for.» An example of this was how Cardinal Ratzinger quickly agreed to perform the seminary’s 2003 confirmation service when no other bishop was available. He swiftly agreed to come, confirming the 14 boys and taking time to speak personally to each one after the ceremony.

And Daniel Johnson, writing in London’s Times newspaper on Tuesday, also pointed out how erroneous it is to expect that suddenly the new Pope will make drastic changes to Church teaching. We cannot expect the Pope «to abandon the ‘deposit of faith,’ which it is his sacred duty to preserve,» noted Johnson.

Rocco Buttiglione, and Italian politician and expert on Pope John Paul II’s thought, was interviewed by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on Wednesday. Buttiglione, who first met the future Benedict XVI over 30 years ago, commented that the German is a great theologian, «one of the greatest intellectuals of our time,» who also has a marked sense of humor.

One of the key ideas of the new Pope, Buttiglione explained, is that we need to rediscover the eternal truths in the context of modern society. Modernity poses many questions, but it is in Christ that we find the answers. It is in this sense, Buttiglione continued, that Cardinal Ratzinger as prefect for the doctrinal congregation took action, not as some kind of disciplinarian, but as someone who wanted to preserve the essential elements of the Christian faith. A task he will surely continue to carry out.

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