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Servus Servorum Dei

The self-effacing modesty of Pope Benedict XVI.

9:00 PM, Apr 19, 2005 • By CHRISTOPHER LEVENICK
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WHAT CAN WE LEARN of Benedict from his first appearance? Much can be gleaned from a first impression, and the eyes of the world are always upon the newly appointed bishop of Rome when he takes his first steps out onto the loggia to address the crowds, urbi et orbi. Benedict's predecessor instantly communicated his magnetic personality, and, with the exclamation Be not afraid, sounded the clarion call of his pontificate.

The first keynote of Benedict's papacy was one of utterly self-effacing modesty. The most sophisticated theologian to ascend to the papal throne in fifteen centuries disarmingly referred to his indisputable gifts as "insufficient instruments." The latest successor to St. Peter appraised himself "a simple, humble worker in the Lord's vineyard."

This is no newfound humility; the statements are in perfect keeping with the man. When he was appointed archbishop of Munich-Freising, for instance, Ratzinger added two new symbols to the episcopal coat of arms--both of which were intended to underscore his unworthiness. The first symbol was a shell. According to legend, St. Augustine was one day walking along a beach, grappling with the mystery of the Trinity, when he came across a child who was playfully pouring seawater into a shell. That, Augustine instantly realized, was precisely his problem: the human mind could no more comprehend the mystery of God than the shell could hold the waters of the sea. Ratzinger thought the account pertinent to his own theological work, which always acknowledged "the greatness of the mystery that extends farther than all our knowledge."

The other symbol that he added to the coat of arms was a bear. It comes from a legend told of St. Corbinian, the founding bishop of Freising. While Corbinian was traveling to Rome, his horse was set upon and torn to shreds by a bear. Corbinian rebuked the bear, and ordered it to carry his pack to Rome. The repentant bear did as he was told. And therein Benedict saw something of himself: He too was to be a beast of burden, called to the service of the Lord.

Perhaps the new Pope's most noteworthy decision was to adopt the name Benedict. Before the announcement, it was widely rumored that, if elected, he would take either the name Boniface (after St. Boniface, the Apostle to the Germans) or Leo (after Pope St. Leo IX, a great Germanic saint, whose feast day, incidentally, is April 19). Instead he settled on the name Benedict. Comparisons were immediately made to Benedict XV (1914-1922), a Pope who labored in vain to bring the carnage of the First World War to an early and just conclusion.

That may be, but the decision probably reflects a deeper spiritual sensibility. Saint Benedict of Nursia is, after all, one of the most important figures in the history of Roman Catholicism. From Benedict, the Western empire first learned the ascetic rhythms of the monastic life. Monasticism first emerged in the East with exemplary figures such as St. Antony and St. Pachomius. But it fell to Benedict to assemble the first communities in Latin Christendom dedicated to the pursuit of spiritual perfection. His disciples were to live simply, working with their hands and praying at regular intervals throughout the day. Theirs was a rigorous vocation, one of utter self-abasement, of withdrawal from the world for the sake of the world.

Many will no doubt balk at calling Benedict XVI humble. To the contrary, they insist, he is an arrogant, uncompromising hard-liner. Such complaints usually refer to his having been tasked--for almost 25 years--with the thankless job of patrolling the boundaries of Catholic theology. Bishops have, of course, long wrestled with theologians; as early as 1277, Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris, was compelled to restrain university theologians from replacing Christ with Aristotle. Though this tension between authority and inquiry is actually quite creative, in an age that smirks at the idea of objective truth, it struck critics as needlessly heavy-handed.

It was a burden that Ratzinger bore, dutifully and patiently, in the service of the Church. He pleaded with John Paul II, begging permission to retire so that he could at last return to the quiet academic life he left in Regensberg. As he writes in his memoirs, Benedict XVI finds much consolation in Psalm 72:23: ut iumentum factus sum apud te et ego semper tectum. Unlike most modern translations, the new Pope follows Augustine's rendition: "A draft animal am I before You, for You, and this is precisely how I abide with you." Like Augustine, he sees himself as a "good, sturdy ox to pull God's cart in this world."