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THE DAYS OF COLOGNE
from issue no. 09 - 2005

THE DAYS OF COLOGNE

A Disarmed Joy


«The first journey beyond the frontiers of Italy made by Pope Ratzinger was a difficult juncture. And the keys used by Benedict XVI, once again, were humility and realism». An analysis by La Stampa’s Vatican expert


by Marco Tosatti


Pope in Cologne

Pope in Cologne

It was a difficult ordeal; a complicated examination, freighted with emotional, media, personal tangles. The four days of Cologne, the first journey beyond the borders of Italy made by Benedict XVI, from 18 to 21 August, constituted – and the Pope knew it– not only a test of first magnitude of his capacity to face immense crowds and difficult guests, historical memories heavy as lead and the unknown of a super-secularized country, «Pagan» in some of its regions, according to the thinking of the Pope himself. It was the real watershed between two reigns, that of John Paul II and his own, the definitive moment of a long goodbye to the Polish Pope begun on the evening of 2 April. And Benedict XVI was aware of it; perhaps it was also for that reason that he spent himself humanly in such a generous way, putting pressure on a nature, timid, shy, foreign to theatrical gestures; he tried, like an affectionate uncle, to make up with an excess of embraces for the palpable void of an absence felt by everybody.
It was a difficult juncture, and the keys used by Pope Ratzinger, once again, were humility and realism, at the limit almost of rawness. The humility of giving himself completely: at the end of the four days he was visibly worn, tired as he had not been seen even during the days of the Congregations General, when he had – provisionally -– his hand on the rudder of Peter’s boat, in waters certainly not calm. And the realism: he offered the young crowd a picture of the Church, and of life’s prospect, for those who are and want to be Christian, lucid, without illusions; also lacking that human enthusiasm, that joie de vivre that Pope Wojtyla was able to bring out from the undertow of suffering, and to communicate even in the last years marked by pain.
If the mystery of Pope Wojtyla was real joy, sincere, in the heart of tragedy and slow physical break-up, we might hazard that the mystery of Pope Ratzinger is joy, likewise deep-rooted and real, behind eyes that cut through reality like knives, also and above all that of the Church. And it is not perhaps superfluous to remember that for his culture, and for the role that he played for almost twenty-five years, his knowledge of Peter’s boat, its equipment and crew, is exceptional, perhaps unique.
And so he addressed the hundreds of thousands of young people as one speaks to grown-ups. «One can criticize the Church a good deal. We know it, and the Lord himself told us so: she is a net with good fish and bad fish, a field with corn and tares». It was striking, it struck again, the simple, sharp lucidity used by Benedict XVI to address the young people of Cologne. Pitiless; he sweetened nothing, he didn’t sugar the pill. «Pope John Paul II, who showed us in the so many blesseds and saints the true face of the Church, also asked forgiveness for what in the course of the history, out of the deeds and words of men of the Church, brought evil. In this way he also shows us our true image and exhorts us to enter with all our defects and frailties into the procession of the saints, which had its beginning with the Magi from the East». That Saturday evening, in Cologne, in front of all those young people, he said: «At bottom, the fact that tares exist in the Church is consoling. So, with all our defects we can nevertheless hope to find ourselves still in the following of Jesus, who called precisely sinners. The Church is like a human family, but it is also at the same time the great family of God, by means of which he forms a space of communion and unity across all the continents, cultures and nations. Therefore we are glad to belong to this great family that we see here; we are glad to have brothers and friends throughout the world. We feel precisely here in Cologne how beautiful it is to belong to a family vast as the world, that embraces the sky and the earth, the past, the present and the future and all the parts of the earth. We in this great company of pilgrims walk together with Christ, we walk with the star that illuminates history».
Benedict XVI greeting the pilgrims attending the closing Mass on the open space of Marienfeld on the morning of 21 August 2005

Benedict XVI greeting the pilgrims attending the closing Mass on the open space of Marienfeld on the morning of 21 August 2005

What Benedict XVI thinks of the church, with a small c, as assemblage of men, is quite clear, and he certainly doesn’t hide it. Sufficient to think of the meditation of the Stations of the Cross, at the ninth station, with the by now celebrated reference to «dirt» and to all the other defects. An opinion repeated later, though almost in passing. A classical example of penitential preaching, one might say, in the style of Jeremiah. Yet that is not how it is; and precisely in Cologne Benedict XVI demonstrated how it is possible to tell the whole truth, leaving no illusions, and at the same time live, demonstrate, display joy. Speaking – allow me a sporting term – of the “basics” of the Christian faith. Because without basics no discipline can be practised with seriousness, even less so Christianity.
Let us speak about the Three Wise Men, whom Ratzinger doesn’t present us in sugary fashion, figures from the Christmas crib: «Even if other men, those who stayed at home, perhaps considered them utopians and dreamers – they were instead persons with their feet on the ground, and they knew that to change the world you need power. That is why they couldn’t look for the child of the promise except in the King’s palace». And not only they, the Pope explained to his listeners, must realize that «the new King, before whom they prostrated themselves in adoration, was very different from what they expected. So they had to learn that God is different from what we usually imagine. Here began their inner journey. It started at the very moment in which they prostrated themselves in front of this child and recognized it as the promised King ».
They were almost the first part of a pontificate program, Pope Ratzinger’s words on the eve: a fresco on the state of things, and on the role of religion in this world. He spoke about the Magi, he spoke about us: «They had to change their idea of power, of God and of man and, in doing that, they also had to change themselves. Now they saw: the power of God is different from the power of the potentates of the world. The way of acting of God is different from how we imagine it and from how we would like to impose it on Him as well. God in this world doesn’t compete with the earthly forms of power. He doesn’t set his divisions against other divisions. To Jesus, in the Garden of Olives, God doesn’t send twelve legions of angels to help him (cf. Mt 26,53). Against the rowdy and bullying power of this world he sets the harmless power of love, that on the Cross - and then ever again in the course of history - succumbs, and yet constitutes the new, divine thing that then opposes injustice and installs the Kingdom of God. God is different – it is this that they now recognize. And that means that now they themselves must become different, they must learn the style of God».
It’s difficult to set these words side by side with the flood of articles that would like the Church, today, to be thirsty for or hand in glove with powers, political or economic. Its visible Head preaches earthly defeat as the obvious outcome of the battle. Strange; and still more strange, the young people, hundreds of thousands, applauded him. «The saints, we said, are the true reformers. Now I want to express it in a more radical way still: only from the saints, only from God comes the real revolution, the decisive change of the world. In the century just gone we experienced revolutions, whose common program was no longer to wait for the intervention of God, but to take entirely into their own hands the destiny of the world. And we have seen that, with that, a human and partial point of view was always taken as absolute measure of direction. The absolutization of what is not absolute but relative is called totalitarianism. It doesn’t free man, but takes away his dignity and enslaves him. It is not ideologies that save the world, but only turning to the living God, who is our creator, the guarantor of our liberty, the guarantor of what is really good and true. The real revolution consists entirely in turning without reserve to God who is the measure of what is just and at the same time is eternal love. And what could ever save us if not love?».
Benedict XVI during the vigil on the open space of Marienfeld on the evening of 20 August

Benedict XVI during the vigil on the open space of Marienfeld on the evening of 20 August

Again basic, again hardly gratifying words, on the contrary. Not personal happiness, not success, not power. Not even the comfort of a «do-it-yourself God», somewhat comforting. He didn’t want to appeal to the audience, Benedict XVI, by offering discounts; he knows that what matters is the mustard seed, and so he sees the Church perhaps not now, but in the foreseeable future; a Church of witness, not a Church of society. That, too, was Cologne; a re-start, from the basics, painful, hardly gratifying, but necessary, indispensable. With joy, and with the smiles that he certainly didn’t skimp on the visit to Germany. Benedict XVI smiled a lot; and at the end of the mass he spread his arms in wide greetings, and improvised: «The Church is alive and I would like to greet you one by one», he said; and again: «I apologize, I would have liked to go up and down all Marienfeld in the popemobile to be near each of you but, given the logistical situation, it wasn’t possible». The young people were probably hoping for closer contact, but they took their disappointment and the organizational mess like gentlemen.
All of them still had John Paul II in their eyes and hearts; but the impression was that Benedict had come through the test. In his way, and in his style. Of course, the four days of Cologne were more than all this. The visit to the synagogue cannot be forgotten, and the meeting with the Moslems; and also, if you like, the substantial disappearance of the threatened protests of “Wir sind Kirche”, “We are the Church”, and of the other challenges, an obvious sign of deep crisis in a certain type of movement, that according to some people is now no more than a “coda” of ’sixties style phenomena. But the core of the visit was in any case there, at Marienfeld, in that spiritual change of office, in front of hundreds of thousands of young witnesses, and in that message: «The Church is alive».


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