Reprising an oft-repeated theme of his, Benedict said in 2008 that “art and the Saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith,” greater in fact that the cleverest arguments for Christian belief. Not only does this thought cast further light on the many canonizations of Blessed John Paul II, but it also furthers the work begun by his predecessor in restoring the beautiful art of the Vatican to the world. As a lover of music and devotee of the majesty of the liturgy, Benedict XVI has expanded our understanding of art as conveyor of both beauty and truth.
Benedict has used art as a “platform of dialogue,” from the glorious Mass he celebrated on the first day after his election in the Sistine Chapel, to sending the Raphael tapestries to England in 2010 to hang beside the drawings conserved in London, to lending Raphael’s Madonna of Foligno to complement the Sistine Madonna kept in Dresden before his visit to Germany in 2011.
Beauty has proven to be a successful ambassador of faith in Benedict’s pontificate, and he has laid the groundwork for its continued centrality in the Church’s outreach to culture.
How short it was! I knew it would be short from the start, when Joseph Ratzinger was first heralded as the next Pontiff across St. Peter’s Square. He was old and frail already. So, knowing this, I vowed to savor each day: I took as my goal to become as “Roman” as possible in mind and heart. Like a son accompanying his elderly father, I would read and think about whatever he said in the day’s homily or instruction.
But however long it was, it would be too short; and now that it is nearly over, I am reminded with sadness of those other great goods in my life that have passed by and are no more, nothing at all now, except that they live in God’s memory.
Although they are not linked through a name, Benedict’s papacy is inextricably bound up with John Paul II’s and cannot be appreciated apart from it. They are both Popes of the Council: John Paul II was granted the years necessary to become the Council’s definitive and irrefragable interpreter; Benedict needed and was granted the time to place that same Council in proportion in the entire tradition of the Church.
They both showed a too-rare kind of modern man, highly public and fully up to date, but bringing to light thoughts and sentiments that obviously have no other origin than long prayer in the presence of God. They were both “scientists” who showed others how to master a body of knowledge and represent it — one wants to say, “at last” — as sober and sound and integrated with humanity and faith: John Paul II doing so with the psychology of love and marriage, and Benedict with the science of Scripture scholarship.
They are models of a new civilization. The time of the Council seems in retrospect to be the beginning of the sudden collapse of an old civilization. Yet John Paul and Benedict gave two visions of the new. John Paul was optimistic and seemed to expect a new springtime of faith to blossom from all the blood of Christians poured out by Nazi and Communist violence against man. Benedict has been more pessimistic, perhaps, suggesting that Christianity for the near future might perhaps live authentically only in small countercultural communities. Right now Benedict’s vision is looking more accurate to many of us.
The one was as true a philosopher as any who ever lived, the other as true a theologian. The Church thinks in centuries; these Popes thought for centuries, as it will take many years of prayerful reflection for us to profit from all that they said. It seems fitting now to me at least that, in the years to come, the Church will be led by heroic and great men, who, in contrast, are distinguished mainly for being men of action — whose task it is not to propose but to implement the New Evangelization and the Gospel of Life. And if this truly is fitting, then I suspect it will be so.
— Michael Pakaluk is professor of philosophy and chair of the philosophy department at Ave Maria University.