Happy 85th Birthday, Pope Benedict!

New book pays tribute to the Holy Father.

(photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate his 85th birthday on Monday with a number of visitors, including his elder brother and the president of his native Bavaria.

His birthday will be "a normal working day, he never interrupts his daily routine, but it will be a very Bavarian day," said Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, Pope Benedict's private secretary, in an interview with Gente, a weekly magazine.

The Pope, who is now the sixth-oldest pontiff in history, returned to the Vatican April 13 after five days of rest at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.

His few days of retreat followed a grueling fortnight that included his six-day apostolic voyage to Mexico and Cuba and the Church’s Easter celebrations in Rome.

The Holy Father, who has shown increasing frailty and exhaustion in recent weeks, nevertheless remains in relatively good health and appears to have no serious medical ailments apart from arthrosis and pain in his right hip.

His 88-year-old brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, told a German news agency April 12 that his wish for his younger sibling on his birthday was that he “still finds enough strength to fulfill his service for the blessing of the Church” and that he “continues to stay in good health.”

Last week the Pope received many tributes to coincide with his birthday, mostly in the form of a book of plaudits from a group of prominent German figures, but also accolades from one of his best-known biographers.

Twenty leading Germans from the fields of politics, culture, the economy and sport have shared their opinions on the Pope in a new book, Benedikt XVI: Prominente über den Papst (Benedict XVI: Prominent Figures on the Pope). Contributors include the former Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, former German soccer star Franz Beckenbauer and alpine skier  Maria Höfl-Riesch. The opinions of prominent cardinals and evangelical Christians are also included. The book was presented to the Pope on Monday.

Beckenbauer, who is known for his frankness, said he treasures a photo of him and Pope Benedict, which he brings with him whenever he travels. “It lies in my suitcase, at the top,” he said. “The inner peace, dignity and kindness that this man transmits has impressed me greatly,” he wrote, adding that a meeting he had with Pope Benedict changed him personally. “I’m going back to church more often,” he said. He also now prays the Our Father every day because from it he draws “strength and fortitude.”

Cardinal Joachim Meissner, archbishop of Cologne, described the Pope as the “Mozart of theology,” while Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich, praised Pope Benedict for his “fine sense of humor, intellectual strength and joy in the faith.”

Not all of the book’s contributors are in complete agreement with the Pope, however.  Höfl-Riesch, also from Bavaria, said she feels his office is “too great for him to always do the right thing.” But she said she is not impressed by his critics: “I don’t have to agree with everything he may do as Pope, but I still appreciate and feel respect for him as a person.”

Writing in the book’s foreword, Msgr. Ganswein stressed that every contributor had “complete freedom to express their feelings,” and there was “no trace of censorship.”

A common wish of each author was a “sincere desire to do justice to Pope Benedict, but not to write with blinders on,” he said. He also pointed out that what guided the effort was an “attitude of sympathy, without which there is no understanding” — words the Pope himself used in the first volume of his book Jesus of Nazareth.

Further tributes have also come from German journalist and papal biographer Peter Seewald, who said Pope Benedict is a man “ahead of his time” and is presenting a viable future for the world.

In an April 10 interview in the German daily Passauer Neue Presse, Seewald explained that the Pope is trying to steer the Church along what has been called the “Catholic center,” a balanced course that leans neither to the extremisms of the left or the right.

“With Ratzinger, everything is about the center, but not in the sense of being average,” he continued. “It’s a positive middle line which, on closer inspection, is not the easiest of exercises, but the hardest,” he said. “Everyone can fall into either extremes, lurching to the left or to the right, but to take a straight path along a balanced center — that is the school of a master.”

Asked what he would emphasize if he were to write a new biography of Joseph Ratzinger, Seewald said: “His simplicity and his humility, which are in such stark contrast to the complexities of the world and the pride of a society which sees itself as the measure of all things.”

A former editor of the German magazine Der Spiegel, Seewald is best known for Light of the World, an unprecedented series of long interviews with Benedict published in 2010. He also interviewed the Pope when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, publishing the conversations in two bestselling books.

Regarding the Second Vatican Council, which began 50 years ago this year, Seewald said that without the Council “perhaps there would be no Pope Benedict, but also without him, the Council would not have taken the form it did.” He said recent research has shown the young Joseph Ratzinger’s contribution as an adviser to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne during the Council “was far greater than he, in his own modesty, has stated.”

The German writer added that the Church’s common approaches today — of collegiality, dialogue, rediscovering the origins of the faith, and a focus on Christ’s revelation — are ones that Joseph Ratzinger has brought to the Vatican over the past five decades. He also said he believes Benedict “is already one of the greats in papal history because he is dedicated to the inner renewal of the Church.”

Asked what he would wish the Pope on his birthday, Seewald said for anyone else of his age one would normally wish that he have a leisurely retirement. But, as that is not possible, he said he hopes he receives “as much help as possible to carry out his office.”


Update: Vatican Radio reported this morning, April 16th:

"In the Pauline chapel of the Apostolic Palace, Pope Benedict celebrated Mass with guests from Bavaria and several German bishops. In his homily, the Holy Father noted that for him, this anniversary day of his birth and his baptism is always immersed in the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of the Cross and resurrection, “In a special way,” he said, “as Holy Saturday, the day of God's silence, the apparent absence of the death of God and yet the day that the resurrection is announced.”"

The Holy Father was born and baptised on Holy Saturday, 1927, in the Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn. During the homily, it's also been reported that the Pope said:

“I am in the final phase of life and I do not know what lies ahead for me but I know that the light of God exists, that he was resurrected, that His lights is stronger than any darkness and that God’s goodness is stronger than all the evil in the world. And this helps us go on with confidence. I would like to give a heartfelt thanks to all those who constantly help me perceive God’s “yes” through their faith.”

Vatican Radio also carries further tributes to the Holy Father on his birthday, including one from Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi and another from the Italian President.

On Thursday April 19th the Church will celebrate Pope Benedict's seventh anniversary as Supreme Pontiff.

Vatican Information Service has also published this report today:

Vatican City, 16 April 2012 (VIS) - Benedict XVI today celebrates his eighty-fifth birthday. He was born in the German village of Marktl am Inn on 16 April 1927. Later this week, on Thursday 19 April, he will also celebrate the seventh anniversary of his election to the Papacy. For these two occasions, a Mass of thanksgiving was celebrated this morning in the Pauline Chapel of the Vatican Apostolic Palace, in the presence of members of the College of Cardinals and a group of bishops from the Pope's native region of Bavaria.

Before the Eucharistic celebration, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, addressed some words to the Holy Father.

"Seven years ago", he said, "the Lord called you to a great gesture of love, asking you, as one day He did Peter: 'If you love me, feed my lambs, tend my sheep'. With the generosity you have always shown, you pronounced your 'yes' and thus began your Petrine ministry. Today, on the occasion of your birthday, we wish to thank you for the solicitude with which you carry out this service of love. It is no coincidence that your first Encyclical was a hymn to the Love that is God, the love which must always animate pastors, who are called to bring the light of God, the warmth of His love, into the world.

"Holy Father, may the Lord continue to remain at your side, accomplishing the promise announced by God to the just man in Psalm 90: 'With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation'".

After presiding at the Eucharist, Benedict XVI greeted the Bavarian bishops and received a delegation from the civil authorities of that region.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.