Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s message for the funeral of Cardinal Joachim Meisner, read out at said funeral by his personal secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein (at right), has become the most discussed part of the impressive ceremony at Cologne cathedral. And it is a beautiful text, personal, full of fond memories of the late cardinal, outlining Cardinal Meisner as a prayeful man with a deep love for the sacraments, for the Eucharist Lord and for the Church of eastern Europe, but also as a passionate shepherd who found it hard to leave his office “at a time when the Church had a pressing need for shepherds who would oppose the dictatorship of the zeitgeist, fully resolved to act and think from a faith standpoint.”
The blogging bishop of Lancaster, Michael Campbell, has a good translation of the Pope emeritus’ words. One line that has been highlighted from this has been the following:
“Yet I have been all the more impressed that in this last period of his life he learned to let go, and live increasingly from the conviction that the Lord does not leave his Church, even if at times the ship is almost filled to the point of shipwreck.”
Although it is a line deserving of attention, it has been abused by too many who wanted to see it as a judgement on the current affairs in the Church, and especially as a criticism against Pope Francis. In my opinion, this is does not do justice to either Benedict XVI’s intentions or Cardinal Meisner’s memory.
What should we take away from that line? That the the ship of the Church is about to be shipwrecked (the original German text speaks of ‘Kentern’ – capsizing)? Or is it that God does not leave His Church? Surely it is the last, as that was the conviction of Cardinal Meisner, one he increasingly learned to live from and be inspired by. Yes, in Germany, and Europe as a whole, the future of the Church does not seem rosy. That is a reality that Cardinal Meisner had to live with, but certainly not one that can be attributed to recent events alone. The papacy of Pope Francis hardly stood at the cradly of the decline. In his own papacy, from the very beginning even, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of it as well. No one would read the lines quoted as a criticism against his own papacy. Because it’s not, and neither is it aimed at what Francis does or fails to do. Rather, it serves as a realistic image of what Cardinal Meisner struggled with and how, towards the end of his life, he learned to live with it: by seeing and understanding that, no matter how bleak things seem, the Lord does not abandon His Church. Not when Francis is Pope, and not when Benedict was.
This is a lesson to be learned from the life of Joachim Meisner, not a tool to put two Popes in opposition against one another.
EDIT: In Italian daily Il Giornale, Archbishop Gänswein commented today on the misuse of Benedict XVI’s words, saying that the Pope emeritus intended no criticism against Pope Francis. “The Pope emeritus was arbitrarily exploited with this sentence which alludes to nothing concrete,” the archbishop said. He also repeated that Pope Benedict XVI’s words were written on the request of Cardinal Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne.
Photo credit: Erzbistum Köln on Facebook