Death of Pope Benedict XVI - New Year's Eve 2022 - Reflections on his visit to the Nazi Auschwitz - Birkenau extermination camp in May 2006

Pope Benedict XVI has died at the age of 95 

Funeral of Benedict XVI

Pope Francis presided over the Requiem Mass of Benedict XVI on Thursday January 5  in St. Peter’s Square.

This ancient rite a was on this occasion a moving ceremony of poised simplicity, as far as magnificent pomp and circumstance can be expressed by the Vatican. Pope Benedict had expressly requested this scaling down of the ceremony. This was the first time in some 600 years that a living Pope and contemporary occupant of the Holy See presided over the funeral of a previous Pope. 

I found the homily given by Pope Francis to be a carefully considered strategic approach, given the present voracious and exaggerated appetite of the social and print media for the prurient and sensational in life. He concentrated on the nature of Christian faith and mentioned the 'wisdom, tenderness and devotion' imparted by Pope Benedict XVI only at the conclusion. The success of his ecumenism was clear from the many Christian faiths represented at the funeral.

This peroration neatly avoided any detailed reminder or re-examination of Pope Benedict's not always popular conservatism, his unprecedented resignation (in stark contrast to John Paul II who laboured and suffered through the last horrifying stages of Parkinson's disease until claimed by death) and what many consider to be his inability to properly address sexual crimes and aberrations among Catholic priests and cardinals. This thoughtful, poignant homily also avoided mention of the at times controversial and unexpectedly divisive theological, academic pronouncements and moral conclusions that resulted from his Pole Benedict's pronounced intellectual excursions. He was one of the world's most renowned theologians. 

I also found the moments before the coffin was taken into the basilica deeply moving and extraordinarily intimate considering the grandeur and solemnity of the atmosphere and occasion. Pope Francis rose from his wheelchair, clearly with some difficulty, touched the head of the coffin and reverently kissed it as an intimate gesture of affection and religious closure offered to his dear friend, this Roman Catholic religious representative of God on earth.

At St. Peter's this morning, the enduring power of Christian religious faith was demonstrated once again, despite the erosive moral pressures of creeping secularism, abandonment of civilized behavioral standards and the totalitarian brutality of the present. 

Pope Benedict XVI lying in state in St. Peter's Basilica, Rome (Getty Images)

For me the most moving moment of his relationship with Poland was his visit as a German Pope (the first Pope of this nationality in 1,000 years) to the Nazi extermination camps of Auschwitz - Birkenau in May 2006. 

This was a truly fathomless spiritual moment as I watched a solitary figure, head bowed, slow of step, taking this long road of suffering and death
I had been so moved by his protestation of courage,  faith, forgiveness and goodwill among peoples that I concluded my book on Poland with reference to the cavernous philosophical and theological meaning of the extraordinary scene that unfolded before us at Auschwitz. 

Pope Benedict XVI walks through the entrance of the former WWII extermination camp at Auschwitz on Sunday, at the end of his four-day trip to Poland
(AP Photo/Diether Endlicher, File)

[Extract from A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland 
Michael Moran, London 2008]  

'Bells tolled and sirens wailed through the reconstructed streets of the Old Town at the final moment.  It was 2 April 2005. Six days of official mourning followed. Bank websites were edged in black and everything was cancelled that smacked of pleasure. Consumption of alcohol and ice-cream was forbidden. Shrines began to materialize in parks  and at war memorials.  The infatuation of this society  with death  was at its most  intense,  the  supermarkets piled  high  with funeral candles. Entire streets were lined with them enclosed in the characteristic  glass funnels of red, yellow and white – the national colours of Poland and the Vatican. Knots of people, curiously lacking an air of expectancy, stood silently behind these flickering rows of  light  waiting  for  a procession  that  would  never  pass.  Entire squares  and  window  ledges  shimmered  in  the  darkness.  Simply being together in the national family ‘nest’ at this moment appeared of overriding  importance. This ‘Polish Pope’ was symbolically  far more significant to Poles than simply head of the Church of Rome. He was a conspicuous  example of that rare species, a successful Pole of world power and influence.

Polish eagles and the national flag, entwined  with that of the Vatican, were draped  in black ribbons.  Established  wartime  traditions returned to life in this unprepossessing yet most courageous of capitals. SMS messages were sent in a mysterious and secret communication network. A directive for the population to meet at this or that  place, line with  candles this or that  street  associated  with John Paul II, extinguish all the city lights at a particular  moment.  I obeyed my SMS message to switch off my home lights at 11.00pm.

His successor Pope Benedict XVI made a pilgrimage to Poland  in May 2006 following  in the  footsteps  of his mentor,  the  man  he assured the assembled hundreds of thousands would very soon be canonized  as a saint. Outside the Presidential  Palace in Warsaw I found myself among a group of nuns bobbing  about in the breezy showers like so many raucous gulls. All around  me massive crowds of Poles were willing the German  Benedict to be the reincarnation of John Paul.

At Oświęcim (Auschwitz)  a grim, determined German  in windswept robes of white and gold walked alone towards  the infamous Black Wall where mass executions took place. This reluctant former member of the Hitler Youth was visibly straining to support an intolerable  burden  of history.  In a formidable  act of reconciliation, he  kissed  and  caressed  a  group   of  survivors   who  were assembled in an orderly  row.

Pope Benedict XVI prays with 32 survivors during a visit to Auschwitz on the last day of a four-day trip to Poland, May 2006

(Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

At prayers in the extermination camp of Birkenau the rain ceased and a rainbow  appeared  over the barracks,  the crematoria  and the symbolic watchtower penetrated by the railway line leading to the loading ramp of death. The spring sun shone full upon him as he sat listening to the singing of the mournful Hebrew lament for the dead. The Middle Ages would have deemed it a miracle.'

Pope Benedict XVI prays at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex’s memorial Sunday in Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland, as a rainbow appears in the background. In the same way John Paul II visited in 1979 as a Pole, Benedict said he visited as 'a son of the German people.' (Denver Post)

Pope Benedict knew and loved the music of Bach in addition to much other music of which he was a religious connoisseur, including Gregorian chant. He found Bach extraordinarily beautiful and  magnificently uplifting in a spiritual sense. Similar emotions to my own after attending the edifying Leipzig Bach Festival.

He may have had in mind Thomas Aquinas’s definition of objective beauty as being a quality which possesses integritas (wholeness), consonantia (proportion), and claritas (radiance or splendour).

He once observed:

' this sense, precisely those who share Bach’s faith can rejoice and be thankful that through his music, the atmosphere of faith, the figure of Jesus Christ, lights up even where faith itself is not present.'

He recollected after hearing the Cantata BWV 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme ('Hey, wake up!" the voice calls to us'):

'I remember a concert performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach –- in Munich in Bavaria – conducted by Leonard Bernstein. At the conclusion of the final selection, one of the Cantate, I felt –- not through reasoning, but in the depths of my heart – that what I had just heard had spoken truth to me, truth about the supreme composer, and it moved me to give thanks to God. Seated next to me was the Lutheran bishop of Munich. I spontaneously said to him: Whoever has listened to this understands that faith is true – and the beauty that irresistibly expresses the presence of God's truth.'

A collection of part of Bach's theological library consisting of 52 books in 81 volumes collected from 1722 displayed at his birthplace, the Bach House, Eisenach. It bears witness to his piety and interest in theology, just as Pope Benedict XVI, a great theologian

Deeper thoughts than usual on New Year’s Eve at the close of a desperately difficult year, deeper reflections than vintage champagne will ever give rise to or erase in joy …. even if you love the beverage!


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