Twilight of a Pontificate: An Eyewitness Report

A middle-aged Italian woman exclaimed “he is my favorite pope!” as she stood next to me in Piazza San Pietro, at the conclusion of Pope Benedict’s final public audience. After an initial surprise, I started thinking about why her reaction was different from that of the average person in the street. My main conclusion was that most people who resented Benedict XVI did not know him, those who appreciated him did.

For more than eight years I have been puzzled by polarized reactions to Joseph Ratzinger, who assume the name of Benedict XVI upon his election to the papacy.  From some I was used to hearing things like: “He’s too conservative; he’s a cold German; He’s not warm like the other Pope; he’s into ancient dress.” From others the reactions were the polar opposite: “The best theologian; very warm and personable; he’s fixing things; he deeply understands symbolism and liturgy.”

Evaluations speak as much about the person evaluating as they do of person being judged. Judgments from ignorance say nothing at all about the judged person and everything about the critic. More often than not, those who judged Benedict negatively had never met him, had never read him, and had formed their opinions of him from accounts about him in the press.

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Flag_of_Vatican_CityThe news media has played an essential role in shaping people’s opinions of Ratzinger-Benedict. The Ratzinger of legend has never existed, it is an effigy created and maintained in people’s minds by the media. The harsh criticism of and disdain for Benedict also reveals more about the beliefs of his detractors than about his values.  Those who criticize more frequently than not, are those who oppose the teaching of the Church he lead.

At a conference held several years ago, when a reporter asked if a recent papal teaching represented “just another dead letter,” Cardinal Ratzinger responded: “only in the English-speaking world.” The media often expresses the values of its society of origin and measures others according to their conformity to such values.  The English-speaking world inclines to a liberal worldview and the English-language media has been the most critical of Joseph Ratzinger. As a young liberally inclined theologian, Father Ratzinger was an eyewitness and participant at the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). Last week he told the priests of Rome that the real Council had been obscured by a shadow reality that he called “the council of the media.”  On a similar note, an Apostolic Nuncio recently told me: “In earlier times Christian believers were martyred in the arenas or silenced by despots. Today they are silenced by having their reputations impugned in the media.”

I was one of about 200,000 eye-witnesses to Pope Benedict’s last public audience. Most came to hear to the real Benedict, not the caricature of the media. The atmosphere was of peace and joy and his words were frequently interrupted by applause.  In referring to the Petrine Ministry, the Pope made use of a gospel account about Peter’s fishing boat (the Barque of Peter), a symbol of the Church in a stormy world.  Peter and the fisherman were afraid that the boat would capsize and didn’t understand why Jesus remained asleep throughout their turmoil. At the moment of greatest peril, the Lord awoke and calmed the storm. Pope Benedict paralleled this story to his own pontificate. In stormy moments those in the barque (including Peter himself) are at pains to understand why Christ does not intervene.  In the end, even from sleep, He guides the boat to safe shores. The moral of the gospel is clear but the following day the English-speaking press seriously misrepresented it with the headline, “God was asleep on my watch.”  They did not report that Benedict had also said that, throughout his pontificate, he never felt alone.

There are also secondary factors to the great divide on Benedict XVI, one being the generation factor. Benedict’s critics tend to be older and his fans younger. People affected by the revolutionary 1960s and 1970s, are often iconoclastic and skeptical of non-liberal views.  Naturally there are exceptions to any trend. The 88-year-old President of Italy, former Communist Giorgio Napolitano, gave Benedict an objective hearing in observing that, “even those farthest from the Church and from the practice of religion have appreciated the high level of his research and the contribution of the thought of Benedict XVI, together with his simplicity and reserve.” While every age group was represented at the final audience, from newborns to the elderly, the majority of those in attendance were younger people.

The following day there was a different mood among those who had gathered in the piazza to witness the final stages of the pontificate.  This time the atmosphere was not of celebration and people’s expressions were somber. To my surprise Vatican television began broadcasting what was taking place inside the Apostolic Palace onto the large screens in the square.  As I looked around I could see people weeping, among them many men.  Even the Pope’s closest collaborators found themselves unable to hold back their tears. On this occasion, the tears were not for the death of a pope but were, rather, a response before such an unprecedented spectacle of humility. The supreme authority of the Catholic Church on earth was, in those very moments, freely laying down his office.  The Pope came out of the elevator and was greeted by his staff and Church officials.  Then his car took him to the helicopter that awaited him at the highest corner of the Vatican, nestled in the Vatican walls, fortifications built in the seventeenth century to protect the Apostolic See by Benedict’s predecessor Urban VIII Barberini. The helicopter made a final pass over St. Peter’s Square and then over Rome. Reporters made much of the coliseum but I found it more poignant to see the aircraft taking the pontiff one last time over the Basilica of St. John Lateran, his cathedral church, the seat of the Pope as Bishop of Rome.  It took about a half an hour for the helicopter to reach Castel Gandolfo. There the Pope was driven to his summer villa, also built by Urban VIII, where he is to spend the beginning of his retirement, until renovations are completed on a residence in the Vatican gardens.

Joseph Ratzinger has always characterized himself as a pilgrim in search of God.  And so we find a pilgrim’s symbol, a large shell, on his coat of arms, first as Archbishop of Munich and then as Pope.  Benedict XVI’s last words were similar to his first words as Pope, spoken from the Loggia of St. Peter’s on 19 April 2005.  On the first occasion he said that the cardinals had chosen a simple, humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard.  On 28 February he said that he would now be a simple pilgrim in the last phase of his earthly life.


  • Rev. Dr. Athanasius McVay

    Rev. Dr. Athanasius McVay is a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton, Canada, professional archival researcher and church historian specializing in twentieth-century Vatican diplomacy and the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church.

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