Pope Benedict XVI

The Bishop of Fulham had the good fortune on a visit to Rome to meet Cardinal Ratzinger and is much encouraged by his election to the highest office in the Church

 

Age brings both surprises and consolations. I have, over the years known numbers of men who have become Anglican bishops and a few who have become bishops in the Roman Church. It is strange and unexpected, nonetheless, to find oneself acquainted with the man who has been elected Pope

The death of Pope John Paul was a great loss to the Church of God. I met him on two occasions at an audience. He had, as others have remarked, that wonderful quality of totally engaging, and being present to, the person to whom he was talking. Our second meeting was only a few months ago, when he was extremely frail. Even then, he retained that same humble and holy attentiveness.

When I was first appointed a bishop, I went to Rome to purchase a mitre and other bits and pieces. I was fortunate enough to be granted an audience with the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Generous and sympathetic

The appointment was for twelve noon and was set to last for half an hour. When I first arrived the Cardinal talked in Italian and there was an American priest who acted as an interpreter. Within ten minutes we were talking extensively in English. It became apparent that he was very aware of the situation within the Anglican Communion and expressed a real concern for traditionalists. My half hour appointment ran on and on. A secretary came in at one o’clock and told Cardinal Ratzinger that his lunch was ready. ‘No, no,’ he said in Italian, and resumed his English conversation with me. At 1.50 p.m. he said that he was terribly sorry; he really wished the conversation to continue, but he had another appointment.

I was fascinated by this meeting. I had imagined a rather dry, humourless German. What I found was an intelligent and articulate man with a beguiling smile and a fine sense of humour. When we parted he asked me to send him a written summary of the situation as I saw it. We talked extensively about ecumenical hopes and about where we were all going. He also extended an invitation to keep in touch and come again – an invitation which I hope remains open.

As we parted in the corridor, I turned to Cardinal Ratzinger and said, ‘Your Eminence, I know that you are frequently attacked both in the Roman Catholic Church and in the wider church for your traditional views. I want you to know that there are many outside the Roman Catholic Church who thank God for your witness and pray for you.’ He smiled, ‘No, no, no,’ he said, ‘it is nothing; I only do it for the Holy Father.’ Now he has become the Holy Father; he will be doing it, henceforth, for Peter and for Christ and for us.

Over the years I have read extensively in Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings. There can be no doubt, even among those who are his enemies or opponents, that he is a man with a real intellectual grasp of the problems facing the Church in modern Europe. More than that, as Anglican Catholics have reason to know and value, he is a doughty opponent of relativism. Like us he upholds the claims and demands of revealed truth. He holds that as responsible human beings we need to conform ourselves to the paradosis: to the truth given and received.

As I reflected later on that meeting I also realized that I had met a man with an extensive understanding of Anglicanism and the problems that traditionalists face within the Church of England and the wider Communion. More than that, he was a man genuinely concerned about our future as Christians, and our place in the Church. I had the distinct impression that he was open to any realignment possible which would not harm or impair existing relations with the wider Anglican Communion. He showed a real concern for the Communion, in all its difficulties, and sought my views as a former member of the Anglican Consultative Council and the World Council of Churches.

Passionate ecumenist

Joseph Ratzinger has frequently been blamed for the collapse of ARCIC. The truth is that he was very frustrated with those who made agreements and then acted unilaterally against the spirit of those agreements. He passionately believes in the call to unity and expressed to me a desire to explore a new kind of ecumenism. It will be interesting to see how things develop. He also showed great interest in traditionalist friends in the Lutheran Churches. Peter Beyerhaus, who spoke at our Assembly some years ago, is a personal friend of the Holy Father and taught with him in Tübingen.

It seems that the new Holy Father has named himself after two Benedicts: the founder of Western monasticism and the Pope who sought sincerely, but some think naively, to reconcile opposing sides in the Great War of 1914-1918. The choice of name, and the very fact of his election, demonstrates the seriousness of the Roman Church and the new Holy Father about resolving the problems of a pluralist and secular Europe. The Holy Father has spoken frequently about the need for a new and broader Christian humanism. We Anglicans are in desperate need of that too. Only recently, I was at an inter-diocesan meeting where clergy and others were talked about as ‘human resources’. Even a liberal protested ‘I thought we believed in people’!

Joseph Ratzinger’s views on the ordination of women and the Western sexual debate not only coincide with those of Forward in Faith: they have been an inspiration to us. I suspect that the only issue on which some of us might disagree with him would be in the debate about birth control and contraception. I personally believe that Rome is right in asserting that to separate sexual practice from procreation is dehumanizing. We do live in an hedonistic age.

There was some talk, before the election, about appointing an African or a South American. Both of these would have been exciting new ventures. But, in my view, the conclave, which made its decision with unusual speed and apparent consensus, acted with great wisdom and insight. In Joseph Ratzinger (‘Uncle Joe’ as he has affectionately and light-heartedly been called), we have a committed intellectual, a pastor and a man who passionately cares for revealed Truth. May his ministry be richly blessed.

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