Tears, thanksgiving, and thoughts from Benedict XVI’s funeral

What was Benedict’s attraction, and why did he touch a nerve with so many? I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that in so doing, I speak for many others as well.

Pope Francis presides at the funeral of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on January 5, 2022, at Saint Peter's Square. (Image: Vatican Media)

I am writing after attending the funeral for our beloved Pope Benedict XVI on this cool and cloudy January day. I found the Mass both dignified and reverent, although quite short as papal funerals go. Perhaps that is due to Benedict’s wishes for a simple Mass and the fact that the current Holy Father is 86 years old and in pain most of the time. Nevertheless, the faithful gathered there to pay their last respects to one of the greatest churchmen of our time were clearly moved. I saw many in tears as Benedict’s casket was borne away into Saint Peter’s to be interred in the tomb once occupied by his beloved predecessor, St. Pope John Paul II.

And I was among those in tears as I set aside any pretense of stoic masculinity and allowed my emotions free rein. I wept with an aching heart as I said a final adieu to a man whose writings have moved me so deeply for many decades and who, in life, was treated so poorly by so many who never understood the true depths of his greatness.

As soon as I heard early this last Saturday morning that Papa Benedict had passed on to the Lord, I said to my wife: “I must go to Rome. I must be present!” And thanks to some generous donations from friends, I was able to do so. Apparently, it was important to them as well that I attend the funeral so that they could be here vicariously through me. And the scores of prayer requests I have gotten from friends and readers of my blog to take to the tomb of St. Peter attests to the depth of Benedict’s legacy as a man to whom millions of Catholics felt connected in a deeply visceral way.

But why?

(Image: Benwen Lopez)

That is the question that kept rolling around in my head as I stood in the cold mist this morning and watched as the crowd grew. Why are they all here? Are they here for the same reason I am? Who are all these people? Are they here just because they are Catholics and a pope has died, so they wanted to come and be a part of a Catholic spectacle? But there was nothing theatrical about this; a “spectacle” it most certainly was not. And the crowd was a multi-national polyglot bunching of all races and nations; I heard German, English, French, Spanish, Polish, and a host of other languages I can only guess at. These were people from all over the world gathered together “sub Petro et cum Petro” to pay their last respects to a man most of them had never met and who had not been pope for ten years.

There was a completely different vibe today from the funeral of John Paul II in April 2005, and very little in the way of the “world cup” atmosphere among the crowds at his funeral. Still…softly, softly there was in our midst the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit as we all quietly whispered our intercessory groanings to the Lord, asking that this man’s soul be taken on the wings of angels swiftly into the heavenly liturgy. I just kept praying in the words of our Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

But I still could not help but wonder how it was that this shy and quiet theologian from Bavaria touched so many souls, my own included. To be sure, he was a great theologian, but there have been other great theologians. And even his time as pope ended abruptly and with an air of mystery—and with not a little frustration and consternation on the part of many.

What, then, was Benedict’s attraction, and why did he touch a nerve with so many? I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that in so doing, I speak for many others as well. Benedict’s allure is that he represented a kerygmatic provocation of a kind that only saints can embody. That provocation was an eschatological one that presses upon us with percussive force the necessity of a deep existential choice for or against Jesus Christ. Life is not a game, and yet the technocratic materialism of modernity begs us to treat it as such, even if the game turns out to be a tragic one.

The cold and unfeeling empiricism of the post Enlightenment’s materialism gave way to the pathos of Nietzsche’s atheism, but even here the pathos is empty and contrived – a simulacrum of the choice for or against Christ but now transposed into the counterfeit language of Dionysian exuberance. We are told to embrace “life”, but without any principled metric for discerning the difference between good and evil impulses. Thus, all of our modern “causes” are grounded in a merely stipulative morality and therefore they change with the mood of the social contract, which is why they give us no binding address and why they do not “bite” and hold with tenacity.

And so we drift and drift on the ocean with only the abyss beneath us, aimlessly bobbing around like a cork in the current. Benedict understood that this is precisely the defining element of modernity, which is why he so often spoke of the “dictatorship of relativism”. That term seems like a contradiction on the face of it. How can relativism be dictatorial? The prophetic and eschatological genius of Benedict was that he understood human beings cannot long live in Nietzsche’s play pen of the upside down and therefore relativism inevitably creates artificial reefs of putative “rights” which, precisely because they are grounded in nothing beyond functionalist categories of utilitarian value and material well-being, must be enforced with an iron fist by the bureaucratic apparatchiks of the technocratic State.

(Image: Benwen Lopez)

Benedict embraced many elements of what we conveniently label “liberal democracy”, but he understood well that its greatest virtues are rooted in the increasingly vague memory of the Christian intellectual legacy. And absent a constitutive mooring in that legacy, the purely formal juridical categories of liberal democracy issue forth into a false notion of freedom and a false anthropology. Thus is modernity at a great crossroads. We now stand on the precipice of a dystopian technocratic destruction of the last remnants of the Christian doctrine of human specialness.

Therefore, again, we face a choice for or against Christ, and therefore for or against the full horizon of the human spiritual landscape. Pope Benedict’s great friend and collaborator, Hans Urs von Balthasar, called this choice our “Ernstfall” moment, which is just a fancy way of saying that sooner or later modernity is going to force upon all of us a crisis moment of choosing wherein, ironically, not to choose will be to choose.

This is what Benedict “saw” with deep and penetrating insight. His Christological reading of history allowed him to resist all triumphalistic “end of history” secular chest thumping. It allowed him to see the internal logic of this self-enclosed nihilistic materialism, no matter how much velvet is on the iron-fist of modern Liberal structures. And for this prophetic courage and wisdom he was vilified as an opponent of all things modern – an old curmudgeon with doom and gloom proclivities and a false nostalgic romanticism for a past that never was. Such is the fate of most prophets.

And this, I think, was Benedict’s allure for those millions of Catholics (and others) who understand, however inchoately, the provocation of Christ in an age devoted to the libido dominandi above all else. Most ordinary folks do not think explicitly in these categories, but they feel them in their souls and sense the deep gash of modernity’s spiritual acedia. They live it and breathe it every day, and Benedict exposed it and proposed as its antidote, unambiguously, the face of God who is love and who gave this love a voice. And that voice is the song of the Lamb who was slain and who has “cast down the mighty from their thrones”.

I have long believed that there really are only two kinds of Catholics these days. Those who get the nature of the crisis – and choice – that we face, and those who do not. I suspect that Saint Peter’s square was filled today with those who understand this well and who came to acknowledge their debt to the shy boy from Bavaria with the giant intellect and the prophet’s heart.

This is why I wept as I watched his plain wooden casket carried away through the giant doors of the venerable Basilica. Large, stately doors fit for a prince or a king, but today opened wide for the final journey home for one so small physically, so humble spiritually, and so remarkably prescient spiritually.

“There goes,” I thought to myself, “one of the greatest prophets of our age”. And as the choir fell silent and the crowds drifted away, I bid him farewell with a prayer of thanksgiving to God and wondered if we will ever again see the likes of a Joseph Ratzinger again anytime soon. I pray that we do.

Papa Benedict, you ran the good race and fought the good fight. Now you can take your place among the saints. Rest in peace.

(Image: Benwen Lopez)

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About Larry Chapp 34 Articles
Dr. Larry Chapp is a retired professor of theology. He taught for twenty years at DeSales University near Allentown, Pennsylvania. He now owns and manages, with his wife, the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in Harveys Lake, Pennsylvania. Dr. Chapp received his doctorate from Fordham University in 1994 with a specialization in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. He can be visited online at "Gaudium et Spes 22".

14 Comments

  1. Beloved Pope Benedict XVI – Faithful Holy Priest Father Joseph Ratzinger, I thank God I was blessed to live in this time. The life and example of Pope Benedict XVI, his writings and teachings have been and shall continue to be a powerful light on my own journey of Faith. Pray for us, Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI.

  2. For a long time I have felt that the smoke of Satan entered into the Church through a crack in the Church. That crack being the rejection, by both the laity and the episcopate, of Pope Paul VI’s Humana’s Vitae. Howeve, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were like an infusion of fresh air that dissipated **some** of that smoke. With both of them gone, I now feel like a have to read everything coming out of the Vatican and the various episcopates with a jaundiced eye. I miss the golden age of those two popes.

  3. “The WORD was made flesh and dwelt amoung men!” Our late POPE BENEDICT was an exaample for us to learn how JESUS LIVED for the LOVE of GOD and the human SOULS by HIS FLESH with prayers in his HEART without stop!

  4. I read this piece and – even while I was reading it – there was born in me the suspicion that itsagonna take more than a few perusings – with my trusty dictionary by my side – before I’ll really get it. But methinks it’ll be well worth the effort.

    Thanks Mr. C – you’ve provided me with an outstanding way to spend the upcoming months of wintah here in New England.

    Then I’ll start reading some of The Pope’s books, and that will REALLY be something else.

    Sacre Bleu!!

  5. I think what will stay with me from watching the funeral of Pope Benedict is the surprising (to me, anyway) image of all those young priests.

  6. Benedict was Christocentric. In depth. His works, response to difficulties centered on adherence to Christ for resolution. His 3 vol Jesus of Nazareth attests to it.
    Chapp recognized this. As he perceived the throng that wept for him at his funeral. Benedict, in imitation of the Christ he loved, was a light in the current darkness.
    During the sadness, fatigued with the concentration on his death I found solace in Mozart Violin Concerto No 3, Hilary Hahn violinist, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. A 2007 Benedict XVI birthday celebration Benedict in papal white settled royally in a white throne of sorts with ranking clergy, large audience, all facing the performer American violinist Hilary Hahn and Orchestra.
    Benedict seemed deep in thought as if seriously analyzing the performance. Mozart seemed to speak to his soul. Her performance elevating. He then seemed pained, almost a grimace my thoughts his agony of being supreme pontiff. He never wanted more than writing, preaching, we know John Paul compelled him to continue as CDF prefect. A supreme pontiff, he endured more of the insulting caricatures with sublimity leaving us an example on how to suffer with nobility.
    Robert Royal, questioned by Raymond Arroyo, expressed his disappointment in the resignation. All of us who love him share this. However, his secretary Archbishop Gänswein made the admission that the Church and world could not be managed from the confines of a papal apartment.
    It appears to this writer that larger realities were at play in this, Benedict part of a divine script. Despite the anguish, judgments regarding the resignation his death turned hearts to where they truly gravitate, toward Benedict and his great love of Our Lord.

    • In that deep Stuttgart reflection there was likely more than dealing with insult, Benedict surely aware of the darkness that lay over the Church, the Vatican itself, stifling, smothering resistance. The “libido dominandi” Chapp refers to, and his sense of inability to dispel it. He had the right words, perhaps not the strength of an Athanasius. Most of us who remain within the righteous, exclusively valid Apostolic tradition of Christ’s revelation perceived that in him. The provocation [as Chapp describes] to assent to Christ. His everlasting commendation to the faithful.

  7. I am so glad to hear from those who loved him as I did. I am the most ordinary of Catholics, but I know in my heart how great he was. Thanks be to God for Pope Benedict.

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