A Full and Radiant Humanity
The President of the International Theological Institute (Gaming, Austria)
tells of his first meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger and the years of collaboration with the Prefect of the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith
by Michael Waldstein
When I met Cardinal Ratzinger for the first time, I was struck by his full and radiant humanity. This impression has been confirmed since then. In 1983, when I was a student at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, I wanted to meet him because I had read some of his writings with great admiration. Through the mediation of his secretary, Msgr. Herron, I was able to get an appointment for an audience.
On the way from the Biblicum to the Vatican, as the 64 bus wound its way slowly through Roman traffic, I had much time to regret this step. I asked myself, “Why am I wasting this man’s time? He has much more important things to do. I have no big problem to present to him. I am just a student. He will doubtless be irritated by a useless meeting.”
About the Letter to the Philippians
These doubts made me quite nervous and awkward as I was sitting in a waiting room at the palace of the Congregation for the Faith. Cardinal Ratzinger came in and immediately put me at my ease by a simple and gentle expression of joy at my presence. We talked about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, particularly the second chapter with its great hymn about the kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ, which I was studying at the time.
He spoke to me as if I were the only other person in Rome. He did not glance nervously at the clock. He did not seem to be occupied by more important matters, turning only a part of his mind to the little student in front of him with the remainder of his mind dwelling on the really important things. With great simplicity, he seemed open to what was present to him. I was touched by his serene interiority. He was deeply and peacefully collected within, and yet intensely present outside in his looking and listening.
It became clear as we talked about Philippians that he had studied all the commentaries I was just then studying at the Biblicum, that he recalled the details of their arguments with great precision, better than I could recall them, and that he understood them deeply. As a scholarly performance it was impressive. Nevertheless, he did not overwhelm me with brilliant display, but asked for my ideas about the text with interest, the kind of interest that animates a conversation between friends. And yet I was not a friend, but a complete stranger to him. In a surprising way, the wall of strangeness that separates strangers from each other seemed to melt away before the presence of Christ.
A simple and direct love for Christ
This was, in fact, the point that impressed me most. The Cardinal’s intellectual brilliance seemed quite evidently guided by a simple and direct love for Christ. It was not the case of a perfume of pious emotion sprayed from the outside on to the surface of a scholarly mind that follows its own secular laws. His thinking itself seemed to be transformed by a deep love for Christ, for Christ as a living person, present here and now as what is dearest to us. He is a better scholar, a better thinker, because of this love.
I had come to the meeting with nervousness and doubt. I left with great joy. It was a joy in the first place about this man’s full and radiant humanity. It was also, in the second place and as a consequence, a joy about being human, a joy that gave me strength in living my own humanity. It created the desire to follow him.
In the twenty-two years since then, I have met the Cardinal in various settings. Most recently, I was a member of a group of about twelve theologians who met with him once a year, not to discuss any problems, but simply to share the truth. We discussed, for example, the relation between theology and liturgy, Mary and the renewal of the Church in the Third Millennium, and the world as the revelation of God. All my contacts with him confirmed the original impression. Here is a man I can truly love and follow, I said to myself twenty-two years ago. Now that he is Benedict XVI, I can say the same thing with great peace and certainty.
Defender of the Church
One can understand why Cardinal Ratzinger has been portrayed as “God’s Rottweiler,” as an attack dog that hunts down heretics. This seems to be an almost unavoidable part of the public image of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith. It was not widely publicized that this particular Prefect was able to resolve the majority of cases in a peaceful manner, by convincing the persons who had to come before him that the Church’s faith, rather than their private opinion, was truly the path to follow Christ.
My own experience of the Cardinal and now of Benedict XVI convinces me beyond any doubt that he is simply human, human in a particularly full and radiant manner.