Father Lombardi: Pope Benedict XVI’s Great Service Was to Present the Face of Jesus to Contemporary Society

INTERVIEW: One year after the death of the German Pope, his former spokesman takes a look back at his pontificate, which encompassed the publication of his trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesuit Father Frederico Lombardi speaking Dec. 30, 2023 during a confererence called 'Remembering Benedict XVI: Life, Teaching, Legacy.'
Jesuit Father Frederico Lombardi speaking Dec. 30, 2023 during a confererence called 'Remembering Benedict XVI: Life, Teaching, Legacy.' (photo: Edward Pentin / National Catholic Register)

The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI — and especially his unexpected resignation — changed the course of Catholic Church history, and has given rise to all kinds of analyses that try to uncover the underlying reasons for his withdrawal.

While some commentators assert that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had always resisted the idea of being pope, his former spokesman sheds new light on this mystery, linking the end of his pontificate with the publication, in 2012, of the final part of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, a work of worldwide influence.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, president of the Vatican Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Foundation and former director of the Holy See Press Office between 2006 and 2016, closely followed this theologically fruitful pontificate (2005-2013). But his admiration for Benedict, who died Dec. 31, 2022, goes back to his earliest youth, when he was a seminarian in Germany in the early 1970s.

Along with many other students, he delighted in attending classes given by the man who was then one of the most popular young professors of his day, as part of a summer program for theology students in Salzburg.

“Even back then, I was fascinated by his ability to explain the most difficult theological concepts in a very clear and convincing language, adapted to today’s sensibility and culture, and this gift has only developed year after year,” said Father Lombardi in an interview with the Register prior to his Dec. 30 remarks at the conference “Remembering Benedict XVI: Life, Teaching, Legacy,” organized by EWTN Vatican, the Ratzinger Foundation and Fundatio Christiana Virtus at the Vatican’s Campo Santo Teutonico.


Servant of the Christian People

Father Lombardi said what has always impressed him most is that Benedict XVI always took the time to write all his catecheses personally and with inexhaustible spiritual depth, even for private celebrations with the Memores Domini religious community at Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, where he retired. But it was in writing his trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth (2007-2012) that his remarkable resignation culminated, in his view; such was the intellectual and spiritual significance of these works.

“For me, it is mind-blowing that a pope, with all his commitments, his concerns, the very difficult things to deal with, not only wants to but also manages in the course of his pontificate to write such a work, so extensive and in-depth to present the face of Jesus with unprecedented erudition and concreteness, without abstract intellectualism but in such a way that he can be encountered by all people today,” Father Lombardi said.

The Jesuit priest, who was spokesman for the Holy See at the time of the unanticipated resignation, can’t help but see in it a kind of correspondence with the completion of the third part of the famous trilogy, The Infancy Narratives, which the Holy Father himself regarded as a “small antechamber” to his previous two volumes. Benedict XVI in fact announced his resignation in February 2013, barely three months after the book’s release.

“It’s as if he felt that he had fulfilled his service as pope, which was to express his faith to the Christian people in a way that is not purely intellectual but also culturally and spiritually very profound.”


Contemplating God Through His Eyes

It was to this work in particular, and to this coincidence in time, that Father Lombardi referred when he said, on the Pope Emeritus’ death last Dec. 31, that he had been searching for the face of Jesus all his life.

This echoed in the words of Pope Francis during his audience with the Ratzinger Foundation earlier in December 2022, when he spoke of the figure of the Pope Emeritus and the importance of his spiritual presence for the whole Church through “his contemplative eyes that always show the way.”

It is an image that Father Lombardi finds particularly fitting, as Benedict XVI has always given him the impression, through his uncommon spiritual intelligence, of being able to look beyond the sensible and material world to lead people towards the truth. And he was not sparing with this charism, which he lavished on helping his flock encounter the person of Jesus through the Gospels and the liturgy.

“His pontificate was set against the backdrop of a contemporary society that has taken leave of the transcendent to the point of forgetting it altogether, which is why it was so marked by the primacy of God, the spread of the faith, and consequently the search for the face of Jesus, the ultimate revelation of God,” said Father Lombardi.


World Youth Day Madrid, an Allegory of His Life

All these particularities, he believes, converged in an episode that he deems particularly emblematic of the rest of his pontificate: the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid, marked by violent weather, particularly during the vigil presided over by the Pope.

“It’s an event I remember with great intensity, as the torrential rains and gusts of wind that evening were so frightening that they destroyed the tents erected around the grounds, which were then plunged into darkness,” said Father Lombardi, who had feared a panic movement in the crowd, the consequences of which could have been dramatic.

Yet, faced with the 1 million young people gathered in front of him, the Pope chose to ignore the security team’s advice to take cover, and stood there motionless, with only one member of his staff holding an umbrella over his head, while the public address system had been blown up.

“Pope Benedict stood there still, impassive, until the wind slowly disappeared, and tranquility returned, allowing him to conclude his speech,” Father Lombardi continued.

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI is protected from the rain by an umbrella in Cuatro Vientos, near to Madrid, Spain, Saturday Aug. 20, 2011. The Pontiff arrived in Madrid for a four-day visit on the occasion of the Catholic Church's World Youth Day. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)(Photo: Alvaro Barrientos)AP2011

“A great sense of peace had settled when the time for adoration came, with the monumental and splendent ostensory [monstrance] of the Cathedral of Toledo. This image of the Pope kneeling before the Holy Sacrament, with behind him the immense assembly praying in silence was surely my most unforgettable emotion of the pontificate because in some way it symbolized his life, made up of so many storms that then always gave way to tranquility in adoration, and union with Christ, even in the dead of night.”

This fortitude and fidelity was also edifying for the former Holy See spokesman during his years at the head of the Ratzinger Foundation, the Pope emeritus having always agreed to receive the winners of its annual prize privately, whatever his state of health. He did so right up to the brink of death, on Dec. 1, 2022, when he received Jesuit Father Michel Fédou and professor Joseph Weiler within the walls of his monastery.

“This meeting, which was also my last memory of him, was particularly moving because he had only a trickle of voice left, although he was still totally lucid, enough to ask his visitors deep questions during the audience,” Father Lombardi added, saying Benedict was still deeply marked by the great peace that seemed to inhabit him a few weeks before returning to the Heavenly Father.

“He often said that he awaited his encounter with Christ with a heart full of joy, certain that he would be facing a friend and not an implacable judge, and this was obvious to anyone who had the privilege of crossing his path. This image of him will always be with me.”

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