I pricked up my ears when the first broadcasts announced the election of a new pope and I heard who it was: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now known as Benedict XVI. I have known this man for nearly a decade. The press has been quick to characterize Ratzinger as an inflexible and mean-spirited theologian, but I know him to be different.
As a non-Catholic (I'm a member of the Bruderhof Communities) I want to extend to him my best wishes and congratulations, and to let him know that he will be in my prayers in the busy days to come.
My friendship with Brother Joseph, as I called him right from the start, began when I presented him with my book Sex, God, and Marriage in 1995. Already then, we formed a common bond when he wrote to me:
"I was glad to deliver your manuscript to the Holy Father. He was very happy for this ecumenical gesture and, more than that, for the contents and for the harmony of moral conviction that springs from our common faith in Christ. Such conviction will inevitably arouse hatred, and even persecution. The Lord has predicted it. But with him we must continue in trying to overcome evil through good."Since that first meeting ten years ago, I have met him three more times-one of those times just by chance, on a street outside the Vatican, where we immediately recognized one another and ended up speaking for several minutes.
On another encounter I was told that he was not well and would have only a few minutes for me. We had come to Rome with a delegation from the United States and Germany to talk about the role of the Catholic Church in the persecution of Anabaptists four hundred years earlier. Much of this persecution had occurred right in the area of Munich, where Ratzinger comes from, and our delegation included people whose forefathers had been burned at the stake.
At first he did seem tired, but as our conversation progressed, he became more and more attentive. I will never forget how by the end of the meeting, he had tears in his eyes, and how he encouraged us with words of love and reconciliation: "When hatred can be overcome and forgiveness be given, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Then we know that we are in Christ."
It is just this message that the world needs today. With the many challenges that face him now-from poverty and AIDS in the developing world to sex scandals in the United States and the decline of faith in Europe and America, the church needs a man like Ratzinger. Clearly he is not popular in some circles: many prayed and hoped for someone more lenient, someone who would give in to their wishes and complaints. But in selecting Ratzinger the cardinals made a brave and bold choice, because the answers to the challenges and crises of our present age will not be found in compromise, but in returning to the simple and age-old truths of Jesus.
On one visit to him I was accompanied by one of my first grandsons, a boy who is healthy now but who had been born prematurely and had a very rough beginning. I asked Brother Joseph to bless him, and he is now a strapping fourth grader who throws a ball, plays chess, and proudly strums on a guitar. Who knows how much the heartfelt prayer of this old man helped?
I cannot agree with the new Pope on every point - for example, on his views of liberation theology - but I still respect and admire him. I have always tried to see the best in others, and I believe that the only way to effect change is by uniting with each other in what is positive.
People think that the church can give them peace and freedom by releasing them from obligations of marriage, family, and education; by throwing away as old-fashioned any reverence for the holiest moments of living and dying. But Jesus offers us a far better way, as Ratzinger so eloquently said when I met with him in Rome in 1995:
"The church must renounce worldly principles and standards in order to accept the truth, and the way it must go will always lead to some form of martyrdom. It is important for us to realize that we cannot bring about unity by diplomatic maneuvers. The result would be a diplomatic structure based on human principles. Instead, we must open ourselves more and more to God. The unity that he brings about is the only true unity. Anything else is a political construction, and it will be as transitory as all such constructions are. This is the more difficult way, for in political maneuvering, people themselves are active and believe they can achieve something. But we must wait on God, and we must go to meet him by cleansing our hearts."These are difficult words-as Ratzinger rightly says, following Jesus is a difficult way-but if we want lasting peace and unity, they point us to the only answer.
by Johann Christoph Arnold
[Johann Christoph Arnold is an author and pastor with the Bruderhof Communities.]