Editor’s note: Matthew Kenefick is a Church historian and contributing writer for The American Spectator, First Things, Catholic Exchange and other periodicals.
As I am a Church historian, my first reaction to the news was relief.
The election of Pope Benedict signaled the beginning of the end of 40 years of purgatory that began with the post-Vatican II co-opting of “the spirit of Vatican II.” Of course the Church is divine, but its earthly members are sinners and very fallible.
For a variety of reasons, including the “progress” of science, resurgent Islam and the growing prosperity of a newly globalized world, the Church faced worldly challenges on all sides. In addition, many in authority taught that authoritative teaching and practices were bound to change or “evolve” into something different and better.
Indeed the “smoke of Satan,” as Pope Paul VI put it, could be sensed wafting its way through the Church, killing souls and spreading confusion. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, saved the day with the pontificate of Pope John Paul the Great, who will go down as one of the greatest in history.
Why did I greet his successor, Pope Benedict, with relief? Well, rarely in the history of the Church have two men so extraordinarily different in style, origins, tastes and even outlooks toward the future ascended back-to-back to the papacy. Yet they were close friends and collaborators in the preservation and proclamation of the faith.
A few days before the election in 2005, I remember hearing the pronouncement of a well-known American dissenting theologian on television: “One thing is for sure … Joseph Ratzinger will never be elected pope.” Happily, I don’t think anyone has taken him seriously since.
Pope Benedict’s election sealed the deal. The authentic interpretation of the Second Vatican Council would carry the day and the New Evangelization that John Paul had begun would continue on into the many decades left in this still-new century.
And wonder of wonders, this retiring Pope would be a smashing success at a World Youth Day in his native land and continually outdraw John Paul the Great at his weekly audiences. His few encyclicals have not been trumpet blasts condemning heretics right and left, as many expected, but rather gentle but strong examinations of the theological virtues and how they play out in our modern world.
However, what most impresses and overjoys me — and what will, over time, most affect the lay faithful — is the importance Pope Benedict places on the sacred liturgy.
Some refer to Benedict’s liturgical work as the “Reform of the Renewal.” He had already outlined all this in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy: making the 1962 Mass more available, attempting to introduce more silence and reverence in the Mass of 1969, relocating the tabernacle in the center of the church whenever possible, banishing irreverent music and encouraging Gregorian chant … and I could go on.
Decades or centuries from now, this will be seen as the most important pontifical accomplishment of this great and holy Pope, who, along with John Paul II, forms the greatest one-two punch in Church history.
About This Series
Now more than ever, we need to be reminded of what a Pope is. On the rock of Peter our Church is built. To him and his successors — Christ’s vicars — have been entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. Christ prayed for him that his faith might not fail, that he might strengthen his brethren.
The untold story right now in the media is how much God has worked through Pope Benedict XVI in his first five years as Pope. That’s why we began to commission short essays to honor him for his anniversary just a few weeks ago.
As the media tries in vain to pin the lion’s share of the blame for the developing abuse scandal on him, those essays are now taking on a meaning and depth we couldn’t have imagined. We’re fortunate to have this man leading us, and these tributes tell why.
We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.
— The Editors