In my previous post, I quoted from the memoirs of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (written as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1998), which cover his life between 1927 and 1977. In that excerpt, he discusses the threat of certain attitudes that were emerging prior to and during the Second Vatican Council regarding the place of Scripture within the life of the Church; in his discussion I found there to be a powerful restatement of the Church’s essential role in revelation. Today I would like to take a look at one more passage, which is from an earlier phase in Pope Benedict’s life, at the end of the Second World War. Here, after having witnessed disturbing changes in his home country, experienced conscription and desertion, and finally having been able to return back to normal life (including seminary studies), he reflects upon the feeling of gratitude felt for the simple fact of the Church’s persistence amidst such upheaval, horror and falsity:
‘Despite the extreme difficulties of our experiences and perspectives, we were all bound together by a great sense of gratitude for having been allowed to return home from the abyss of those difficult years. This gratitude now created a common will to make up finally for everything we had neglected and to serve Christ in his Church for new and better times, for a better Germany, and for a better world. No one doubted that the Church was the locus of all our hopes. Despite many human failings, the Church was the alternative to that destructive ideology of the brown rulers; in the inferno that had swallowed up the powerful, she had stood firm with a force coming to her from eternity. It had been demonstrated: The gates of hell will not overpower her. From our own experience we now knew what was meant by the “gates of hell”, and we could also see with our own eyes that the house built on rock had stood firm.’
Milestones – Memoirs: 1927-1977 (1998), pp.41-42, Ignatius Press.
Having grown up in Germany during World War II, and having spent all his life in the Catholic Church both as a communicant layman, and then as a priest, cardinal, and finally pope, Joseph Ratzinger knew and knows well enough about the failures of some Church leaders to stand up to the Third Reich. However, he therefore also knew and knows how much heroic witness was provided by churchmen and laity at all levels, and how much of the perceived lack of Catholic resistance to the Nazis in Germany has been misrepresented over the years.
The main point here though, is that even if one were to give the anti-Catholic sceptic as much leeway as possible, and give all their accusations the benefit of the doubt, that the Church, in her essence, had continued to stand for truth and goodness despite being surrounded by chaos, lies and insurmountable evil; that ‘in the inferno that had swallowed up the powerful, she had stood firm with a force coming to her from eternity’. Furthermore, Pope Benedict emphasises here that the Church stood as the only alternative to the hateful ideology of Nazism. When all is said and done, the Church is the only institution that stands for a true and abiding humanism, and the only force that can withstand the manifold powers of evil. Even when her human failings are woefully manifest, all it takes is one swift survey of the alternatives offered (both current and past) and we must say with Saint Peter ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68).
To reflect upon the Church’s steadfast preservation throughout the ages of those truths and values which make life worth living, is an extremely worthwhile exercise. So many heresies, so many threats – both military and ideological – have battered the walls of the Church in its near two thousand year history, and yet it still remains the ‘pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (1 Timothy 3:15). To reflect, like Pope Benedict in his memoirs, upon the trials and scandals that the Church has lived through, should give us great solace and encouragement when faced with the ordeals she faces today – secularism, the rise of militant Islam, relativism, indifference; and also those from within, like the sex abuse scandals or the infighting and inertia of the Roman curia. We can look back and know that, however bad it seems, however much we may feel like giving up on the Church, that she is built on solid ground, and the gates of hell will not prevail against her (c.f.; Matthew 16:18ff).