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from issue no. 03 - 2007

A Father of the Church for our times

by Cardinal Julián Herranz

This past summer a university student, after hearing the homily of Benedict XVI on the Eucharist at the World Youth Day in Cologne, said to me: «Your Eminence, history will say that this time the cardinals chose a Father of the Church as Pope...». I don’t know what the historians will say of this pontificate, but one thing is sure, and it pleases me to remember it on the eve of the Pope’s eightieth birthday: the Fathers of the Church both in the East and in the West were linked, as we are today, to the human vicissitudes of their times, but lived them with their spirit pervaded by a particular doctrinal and social clairvoyance. The man Ratzinger has demonstrated before and after his election to the Chair of Peter that he possesses this same temper of the Fathers in an outstanding way. Others will be able to show the truth of this with amplitude of reasons and wealth of particulars. I would like to mention in this written wish only three ecclesial events in which I felt in special harmony with him.

The post-Council crisis
What is known as the “post-Council crisis” of the twenty years 1965-1985 was truly a paradoxical situation. Precisely while the Holy Spirit, going beyond human limitations, had just poured on the Church the radiant light of Vatican II, a dramatic period of particular darkness and confusion opened in many ecclesial fields: a desire to modernize theology and the faith by sidelining God and putting man at the center; a temporalistic reduction of the Gospel message of salvation and consequently of the mission of the Church; a restructuring of priestly identity that induced many to laicize their life style and that led to a drain of priestly and religious vocations; uncontrolled and desecratory liturgical experimentation, done abusively in the name of the so-called “reform decided by the Council”, and so on. In that context the word “Tridentine”, synonym of “retrograde conservative”, took on for many a disparaging nuance, almost of insult; while others clung onto a reductive traditionalism of the true Christian Tradition, even in open opposition to the Magisterium of the Council.
«As regards both opposed positions», the then Cardinal Ratzinger warned in his famous Report on the faith, «it must first of all be made clear that Vatican II is backed by the same authority as Vatican I and Trent: and that is the Pope and the College of Bishops in communion with him. In terms of contents it must then be remembered that Vatican Council II stands in strict continuity with the two preceding Councils and resumes them literally in decisive points». I confess that, reading this interview of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with Vittorio Messori, I was profoundly struck by the courageous clarity and lucid realism with which the doctrinal and disciplinary deviations of the “post-Council crisis” were set out. This long interview provoked lively reactions on the front pages of the newspapers.
I had several occasions to speak about all this with the cardinal, particularly in a long meeting on 14 January 1985 in his study at the Congregation. That day I also had the opportunity of setting out for him in detail the attitude of the founder of the Opus Dei, Monsignor Escrivá – whose cause for canonization had already begun – towards the situation of the Church in that dramatic crisis. I said that, reading his Report, I had found in not a few passages, expressed in academic language, the same grieved theological and pastoral considerations, though full of hope, that I had heard in the ’sixties and ’seventies from Monsignor Escrivá, sometimes even out loud in the chapel, in front of the tabernacle, while engaged in his personal meditation. «It was the reaction of a great founder and of a saintly priest», Ratzinger commented.
The Report on the faith was justly defined a “prophetic denunciation” or an “epochal document in Council hermeneutics”, or what Benedict XVI, many years afterwards, in his first speech to the Curia as Pope, in the traditional Christmas encounter, in his direct and serene interpretation of the Council, was to call the «hermeneutics of continuity» as opposed to the «hermeneutics of rupture» denounced in the Report. The reading of these considerations – certainly not the work of an academic theologian but the meditation of a theologian-pastor aware of his responsibility to the souls under his guidance – evoked in a certain way the far-off but ever relevant outline of the Fathers of the Church. They, in fact, with their writings (tracts yes, but above all the speeches and homilies that came out of their assiduous meditation on Sacred Scripture) transmitted to the faithful a vigorous spiritual nourishment and intervened with diligence when the inner circumstances of the Church, or the external ones of pagan culture, made it necessary to clearly define the contents, the requirements and the proposals of the evangelical message and the apostolic tradition. Almost in confirmation of this personal impression of mine, and certainly as a sign of his particular veneration towards the Fathers of the Church, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his kind dedicating to me a copy of the Spanish edition of the Report on the faith: “In fraternal communion for Monsignor Herranz, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on the feast of Saint Athanasius 1986”.

Benedict XVI greeting pilgrims on the banks of the Rhine welcoming him to Cologne, 18 August 2005

Benedict XVI greeting pilgrims on the banks of the Rhine welcoming him to Cologne, 18 August 2005

The dictatorship of relativism
The tone of the homily that the Dean of the College of Cardinals pronounced at the Mass pro eligendo Romano Pontifice the morning of Monday 18 April 2005 seemed to me not that of Athanasius, the great theologian of the incarnation of the Word, but rather that of Augustine, who in his City of God liberated the destiny of Christianity from the political-cultural one of decadent imperial society. With a slight cold, but in serene and calm voice, Cardinal Ratzinger referred to the situation of the Church and the world and said to us: «How many winds of doctrine have we known in these last decades, how many ideological currents, how many modes of thought [...]. To have a clear faith, according to the Credo of the Church, is often labeled fundamentalism. While relativism, that is letting oneself be carried “here and there by every wind of doctrine”, appears the only attitude suited to modern times. A dictatorship of relativism is being set up, one that does not recognize anything as definitive and that leaves as yardstick only the self and its desires». And in the conclusion of the historical homily addressed to us, the 115 cardinal electors who were about to enter the Conclave, he added: «Our ministry is a gift of Christ to men, in order to construct His body, the new world». A world in which Christ would be the measure of true humanism and where a healthy concept of the secular would enable the overcoming of the “dictatorship of relativism” that imbues national and international political institutions, above all in old Europe, with a secular fundamentalism, radically hostile to any social and cultural relevance of religion. This type of fundamentalism is certainly not respectful of the right to religious freedom proclaimed for both private and social situations in article 18 of the UN Declaration on the fundamental and universal rights of the human person.
It has been said that different factors came together in the Conclave to bring about the quick election of Cardinal Ratzinger: the intellectual prestige of the great theologian, the institutional legitimacy of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the reputation of a man of deep spiritual life and pastoral experience and also the legitimacy of the right hand man of John Paul II. I think that all of this is true, and that these two years of pontificate have above all highlighted the continuity of the tenacious papal Magisterium in preaching Christ: principle of life and salvation for souls – as Ratzinger like Wojtyla knows how to anchor in the daily life of the faithful – but also necessary light for understanding and safeguarding both the truth and dignity of the human person – the correct anthropology that embraces the concept of natural law itself – and the true progress of society, in the face of the cultural and moral degradation of relativism. Like John Paul II, Pope Ratzinger also draws the crowds by making the deepest concepts of Catholic theology comprehensible to all.

The meeting of reason and faith
As many others did in reaction to the media and the fundamentalist campaign orchestrated in the Muslim countries against the Pope, as a result of the famous speech at the University of Regensburg, I too, in an interview of 16 September given to a famous Italian newspaper, exhorted a complete reading of the masterful lecture on faith and reason. Only thus – and not on the basis of partial newspaper summaries or superficial television programs – could moderate and reasonable Muslims understand that the considerations of Benedict XVI were not disparaging of Islam, indeed opened the best possible way for the necessary dialogue between cultures and religions.
In fact the affirmation that «not to act according to reason is contrary to the nature of God» constitutes the point of departure for the successive affirmations of the Pope, that, even at the risk of making a poor summary, I would hazard outlining thus: «In the beginning there was the logos, and the logos is God, the Evangelist [John] tells us . The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought was not simple chance [...]. At bottom, one is dealing with the encounter between faith and reason, between authentic enlightenment and religion [...]». And after pointing out the limits of pure positivist reason, deaf to spiritual truths, Ratzinger adds: «With all the joy in the face of the possibilities of mankind, we see also the threats that emerge from these possibilities, and we must ask how we may master them. We succeed only if reason and faith are united again in a new way; if we go beyond the self-decreed limitation of reason to what is verifiable by experiment, and open up again all its breadth [...]. Only thus can we become capable of a true dialogue of cultures and religions: a dialogue of which we have such urgent need».
Benedict XVI on a visit to the Pontifical Lateran University, 21 October 2006

Benedict XVI on a visit to the Pontifical Lateran University, 21 October 2006

Certainly it is a dialogue that must be undertaken in mutual respect of the dignity of the human person – a universal value to safeguard against every relativist reductionism – and of the fundamental rights that flow from this dignity, among which the right to religious freedom, freedom of worship and conscience, as Benedict XVI himself took care to repeat many times, also in the later visit to Turkey. A visit justifiably considered “dangerous” at first, even “reckless”, and afterwards judged “triumphal” and “decisive for Christian-Muslim dialogue”.
We should in fact engage ourselves in the serene formulation of an intelligent dialogue, that helps progressively to set aside the unreason of Muslim fundamentalism, root of the homonymous terrorism, and that can unite Christianity and Islamic religion in the common endeavor to confront, in the so-called West, a type of reason that excludes God totally from the vision and the moral life of man. Benedict XVI himself explained this, last 22 December, when speaking to the Roman Curia of his visit to Turkey: «It has to do with the attitude that the community of the faithful must assume with regard to the convictions and the requirements that asserted themselves with the Enlightenment. On the one hand we must set ourselves against a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the community and public life, thus depriving mankind of its specific criteria of measurement. On the other hand, it is necessary to accept the true gains of the Enlightenment, the rights of man and especially the freedom of faith and its exercise, recognizing in them elements essential for the authenticity of religion also».
This speech brought to my mind the phrase about the Fathers of the Church of that young person of the World Youth Day in Cologne... I think of Ambrose and Augustine, of their commitment in confronting the decadence of the Empire and the barbarian invasions and the beginning of the transmission to the newborn Europe of the Classical and Christian legacy. And I think of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, their commitment to confront, with the perennial creative forces of human reason and of faith in the divine love, the decadence and at bottom the “barbarisms” of secular fundamentalism (the relativist dictatorship of a society and a culture without God) and Muslim fundamentalism (that would instead like to impose faith in God through physical and moral terrorism).
Thank you, Your Holiness, for teaching us to live so: with the contemplative spirit immersed in the joyful friendship with Christ and apostolic concern for the exciting human vicissitudes of our time. Congratulations on your eighty years of Christian youthfulness and warmest wishes for long years of ministry yet. We all need it, Christians and non-Christians.

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