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Pope Benedict XVI's coat of arms

All day today, as I’ve been reading news and opinion pieces on the Holy Father’s resignation and listening to the commentary of various (informed and uninformed) pundits, my thoughts keep coming back to a bear.

Specifically, the bear featured on Pope Benedict XVI’s papal coat of arms, known as St. Corbinian’s Bear.

The bear figures in a legend about St. Corbinian, an 8th-century bishop of Freising, in Bavaria. The story goes that, while Corbinian travelled along a road to Rome, a bear jumped out of a wood and killed Corbinian’s pack-horse. The saintly bishop reprimanded the bear and forced him to carry his pack the rest of the way to Rome. The bear has remained a traditional symbol of the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising, and was featured on Joseph Ratzinger’s episcopal coat of arms as head of that archdiocese, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and finally pope.

While it would make sense that Ratzinger would have an affinity for his Rome-bound episcopal predecessor, it is actually the bear with whom he identifies. In his autobiography Milestones, Memoirs: 1927-1977, Ratzinger says, “The bear with the pack, which replaced the horse or, more probably, St. Corbinian’s mule, becoming, against his will, his pack animal, was that not, and is it not an image of what I should be and of what I am?”

The image of Corbinian's bear took on an additional significance when Ratzinger was summoned to Rome to serve as head of the CDF, and even greater significance when he was elected pope. 

The comparison is particularly poignant today, because at the end of the legend—once the beast has discharged his obligations and accompanied Corbinian to Rome—the bear is set free.

Jeremy Lott picks up on this theme over at Real Clear Religion:

When the retiring Pope Benedict XVI tells this story, he compares himself not to the saint but to the bear. And sometimes he laments that once his predecessor John Paul II dragged him to Rome, he did not allow him his freedom. Ratzinger tried to resign and return to Germany to teach theology a few times. His pope wouldn't allow it.

Then came the papal conclave following John Paul II's death in 2005. Cardinal Ratzinger gave a speech that railed against as many secular ideologies as he could think of and called for cleansing the church of the accumulated "filth" of its recent sex scandals. The speech was reviled by liberals and was thought to be a sort of warning to his fellow cardinals: Do not elect me pope. Yet when the smoke cleared over St. Peter's Square, there he was. …

And now, citing his failing health, Benedict has stunned much of the world by announcing his resignation from the papacy. This makes him one of the few popes to abdicate his throne and the first in 600 years to do so. The Bishop of Rome has finally decided to give the bear back its freedom.

Read the whole piece here.
About the Author
Catherine Harmon

Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.
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