It is worth noticing that Pope Benedict XVI died on Saint Sylvester’s Day. In German-speaking lands, it remains a custom for pastors to deliver a Silvesterpredigt, a sermon on Saint Sylvester’s Day that reflects on the old year and the new. One of Father Joseph Ratzinger’s Saint Sylvester’s Day reflections, “Meditation for New Year’s Eve,” appeared in print for the first time in his collection of homilies and essays, Dogma and Preaching. Originally published in German in 1973, the book’s fourth edition has been translated into English by Ignatius Press.
In North Atlantic countries, the early 1970s saw surging public protests against the Vietnam War and roaring rallies for peace. It was an era of Western upheaval and also of “flower power.” Newly in reruns was the Monkees’ weekly television show, its theme song containing the lines, “We’re the young generation,/And we’ve got something to say.”
By 2011, when the English version of Dogma and Preaching was new, there had been many more protests filling city streets, each decade revealing a new issue to ignite the outrage of comfortable college-age Westerners. All the while, protesters for peace and love had implacable demands, best summed up by George Will’s irony: “You must conform to our diversity.”
When Pope Benedict died, a frail recluse in Rome nearing one hundred, in vogue was the word “outdated.” Apparently one of the most damning epithets to hurl at anything nowadays is to declare it to be outdated. Needless to say, there are plenty of people ready to cast down the memory hole all of Catholic teaching as being outdated.
A healthy corrective to that at least verbal bonfire of perceived vanities is the late Pope’s “Meditation for New Year’s Eve.” Of course, for much of the past fifty years Joseph Ratzinger had been a controversial figure, often vilified as Der Panzerkardinal, Pope John Paul II’s doctrinal enforcer. There is a great story that may well be true that shows the inner balance of the man. When he was Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an aide handed him an article that was a scathing attack on Cardinal Ratzinger. The aide watched with some apprehension as the cardinal calmly read the article. When he had finished, Ratzinger said, “If I didn’t see things like that, I’d think I wasn’t doing my job.”
Secular journalists never tired of reminding everyone that Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had once been called the Holy Office of the Inquisition. One parish priest in America called him, “The arch-enemy of the thinking Catholic.” Time was when seminarians read his books furtively, hoping deans and rectors never found out.
When then Father Ratzinger gave his “Meditation for New Year’s Eve,” much public hand-wringing was over “the generation gap.” With that trendy worry in mind, he observed, “It is as though the elderly and the young were living in different times, and the two groups compete with each other for the time.” In other words, the generations not only gapped, they threatened one another.
By temperament and training, Ratzinger was a scholarly man, for a number of years teaching theology in German universities. As a lecturer and writer, however, he could always make even the most obscure points plain as day. Like his academic talks and books and articles, his homilies drew upon weighty tomes, and here, along with referring to Saint Augustine of Hippo and Carl Jung, he cited a then recent book by Helmut Kuhn. According to Professor Kuhn, said Ratzinger, “the triumph of Hegelianism in Germany meant that the philosophy of history replaced ethics, and what is modern or up-to-date was equated with the good.”
That nineteenth-century equating of whatever is new with what is good held over into the latter twentieth century and beyond. In his homily, Ratzinger noted that one result was giving a privileged place to the young. “In an era that derived its inner strength and organizing power from tradition,” he said, “the most revered stage of life was old age.” An indicator of that emphasis exists, he pointed out, in the very word “priest,” deriving as it does from the Greek word for elder.
People who have experienced the coherence of time,” he said, meaning “the interconnection of the stages of life,” they are “the ones who carry the times.” He saw that making an idol of youth would lead to stagnation. “In this period of history,” he mused, “when the future is the predominant concern and people therefore seek to stop the clock at a certain point, perhaps by far the most important thing we can learn is to say a wholehearted ‘Yes!’ to older people and to our own growing old and, in so doing, to accept time and the future.”
Even today, one may see that youthful protestors seem to be restless and rootless, but really they want to stop time and preserve their own age. They behave as though they had found a magical Fountain of Youth. Meanwhile, with colossal self-flattery, they act as if all of human history had been awaiting them. Thus, they think that the vast inheritance of Christian civilization has fallen into their hands. However, in a Saint Sylvester’s Day homily when he was Cardinal Archbishop of Munich, Ratzinger observed, “When we are baptized, the Tradition is not handed over to us, we are handed over to the Tradition.”
From one perspective, impatient with anything deemed to be outdated, the Church and her creeds and catechisms must get with the times. If the Church does not catch up, the thinking goes, she will be left behind, unable to witness or minister to anyone. That assertion holds an emotional appeal, but it has the sheep leading their shepherd.
Adapting the Creed to the times offers endless job security, the times changing as they do, but that effort just repeats what people said to Christ on the first Good Friday: “Come down from that cross, and then we will believe in you!” Just come down to our level, be just like us, and then we will follow you. For some people, maybe some traps are just too obvious to see. One of Joseph Ratzinger’s great gifts was seeing those traps and clearly pointing out to us the right path around them. May choirs of angels lead him to his rest.
Leave a Reply