Almost from its first moments, the 21st century has been plagued by insecurity and doubt; the disputed election of 2000 has given rise to such a pervasive habit of political cry-babyist-conceit that a graceful concession speech has become the grown-up exception rather than the selfless rule. Tolerant America, which managed after the September 11th attacks of 2001 to make clear distinctions between peaceful Muslims and radical Islamists, has lately–perhaps because her leadership seems unwilling to use meaningful words to maintain those necessary distinctions–become confused about who to trust on that score.
A near-decade of weather-fetished movement hyperbole–which routinely went the apocalyptic route, even unto declaring the humble incandescent lightbulb to be a plague upon helpless humanity–collapsed under the weight of its own shoddy science, dubious plenary indulgences, and hypocrisy. Formerly credible and instructive prizes out of Oslo have become laughable spite-trophies awarded not on the basis of what one has accomplished, but simply for ones managing to not-be someone else.
Add to all of this the world-wide overabundance of ideologues and governments trending toward ineptness or heavy-handedness, or both, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent worry that “Democracy is in trouble,” seems like Victorian reticence.
This decade of believe-what-you-want truthiness has been disorienting and exhausting, and it makes the upcoming meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Elizabeth II of peculiar import, for both of these octogenarians know all too well what happens when governments and ideologies loom too large, and distortion carries the day.
At the age of fourteen, a Down Syndrome-afflicted cousin of Joseph Ratzinger’s was removed from the home and killed as part of the Nazi eugenics campaign. Ratzinger himself, also fourteen, was conscripted into the Hitler Youth, and later drafted from his seminary. He trained with the infantry, deserted when his unit was dissolved, and was eventually held by American troops as a POW.
In his memoirs, Peeling the Onion, Günter Grass described a meeting with the young Ratzinger in 1945, when both were prisoners of war. Grass, writes Daniel Johnson in The New York Sun,
a Nazi who had been proud to serve in the Waffen-SS, was taken aback by this soft-spoken, gentle young Catholic. Unlike God, [Ratzinger] played dice, quoting St. Augustine in the original while he did so; he even dreamt in Latin. His only desire was to return to the seminary from which he had been drafted. “I said, there are many truths,” wrote Grass. “He said, there is only one.”
During those same years, the nineteen- year-old Princess Elizabeth of York had joined the support ranks of the Auxiliary Territorial Service–the women’s branch of the British Army–where she trained as a driver and mechanic, and drove military trucks. Coming as she did from a long line of determined women (when Buckingham Palace was bombed her mother–whom Hitler referred to as the “most dangerous woman in Europe”–famously said, “I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”), Elizabeth was stoic and dutiful as she and her family remained in London throughout the blackouts and bombings.
Both Elizabeth and Benedict have seen war and its woeful aftermath, up close. They have watched totalitarian regimes advance and decline, and seen religion used as a justification for slaughter. They know what the rhetorical jackboot sounds like and how seamlessly it can advance; they can speak to our time, if we let them.
Over eight decades, much that formed this pope and this queen–from simple manners to excessive ritual–has been dismantled and reconstructed; the terrain must seem very odd to them, yet they have managed to remain faithful to their roots and callings. The churches they serve have been rocked by social upheaval, doctrinal controversy, and scandal, and both the monarchy and papacy are today facing criticism about the size and necessity of their offices, but duty, for these two, trumps personal comfort. Retirement is a luxury denied them.
Elizabeth and Benedict, despite obvious differences, may take some comfort in each other’s brief company. Almost no one on the planet knows what they know; perhaps no one in current leadership can see and–with the eloquence born of experience–speak to past and future days, from their lonely thrones and balconies.
History has a way of looping, of revisiting past business with an ironic touch, and as we anticipate the arrival of the Roman Pontiff to England’s green and pleasant pastures we can’t but wonder what these great figures of the twentieth century–the last still astride the world’s stage–will have to say to each other, to us, and to the amateur-hour leadership plaguing too-many shores, about unity, common-purpose and co-operation as the Queen of England, descendant of Henry VIII, welcomes the Bishop of Rome, successor of Peter. Their coming together warrants watching with good will, and perhaps a few whispered-up prayers.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer for First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress.