One was a small, shy, introverted figure, who in old age looked as though a strong breeze through the Vatican Gardens might temporarily lift him off his feet. The other, even in his eighties, resembled the Aussie Rules bruiser he nearly became: a mountain of a man who dominated any room he stepped into.
One was an intellectual of the first order, capable of leaping effortlessly from Babylonian creation myths to Kantian epistemology; his many books, which cast a steady and unexpected light on familiar subjects, will be of permanent value to Christians and to anyone else in search of true wisdom. The other was less an original thinker than a sharp-witted popularizer, someone who could quote Augustine to a packed cathedral congregation and make it stick.
One was an unlikely cultural icon, a hero to artists like Patti Smith and Werner Herzog. Politically unpredictable, he could lament the sexual revolution at one moment and global warming the next; he could critique Marxism while observing that “democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine.” The other was less cultural icon than culture warrior, a man of the right who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his political friends and accepted the rage of his enemies as part of the deal.
Benedict XVI and Cardinal George Pell, who both recently died in the space of a fortnight, became powerful churchmen by contrasting routes. Everyone who knew the young Pell expected him to rise and rise. He made stuff happen. When a door was locked in his face, he put his shoulder to it and shoved it off its hinges—most notably in his last major role, as the Vatican’s finance czar. Benedict, on the other hand, was kidnapped from the academic job he loved and sent to the bishop’s palace in Munich—the day his happiness ended, he said.
Both men lived through, in the last decade of their lives, the chaos of our times, but in very different ways. Benedict, having vowed loyalty and silent obedience to his successor, had to look on as much of his own legacy was dismantled: He became, depending on how you saw it, either a tragically acquiescent figure, or an exemplar of trust in divine providence even when “the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.” Cardinal Pell, meanwhile, spent over a year in jail, the victim of an astonishing miscarriage of justice that almost went uncorrected. A Prince of the Church shut up in solitary confinement, refused permission even to say Mass—it was like something out of sixteenth-century England or the Eastern Bloc, but soundtracked by the jeers of a very twenty-first-century online mob. Pell had his moments of private anger, but he came remarkably quickly to peace and forgiveness.
The former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has described Pell as “a saint for our times,” and more than a few Catholics have called for Benedict to be canonized. Not everyone would go so far. Pell himself said he could have done more, in his early years, to police child abuse: Was that a conscientious man holding himself to an exceptionally high standard, or was it an admission of a serious failing that clouds his legacy? Benedict appears, from recent revelations, to have begun to realize that he had handed power to his enemies: Was his inexhaustible, lifelong willingness to help his opponents simply Christian charity, or was it a culpable naivety?
We can debate those things, while still expressing an unmitigated gratitude to these two men for the message which, from first to last, they preached. As they saw, if belief in the God of love was disappearing from the world, it was not because of any direct challenge, but because of a subtle blight that threatened to wither up the roots of faith. It was so easy, amid the clamor of the modern media and the relativism of the modern world, to start thinking that perhaps God’s revelation could be safely ignored. From there it was a very short step to forgetting about God altogether. And so they reminded us, again and again, to persevere in the faith that we have received.
As Cardinal Pell put it with characteristic directness on the First Things website:
It is Catholic teaching that the pope, bishops, and all the faithful are servants and defenders of the apostolic tradition, with no power to reject or distort essential elements, especially when the tradition is being developed and explained. What is in dispute when we reject fundamental moral teaching on sexuality (for example) is not a paragraph in the Catholic Catechism, or a canon of Church law, or even a conciliar decree. It is the Word of God itself, entrusted to the apostles, which is being rejected. We don’t know better than God.
And as Benedict wrote, in a spiritual testimony to be published after his death: “What I said before to my countrymen, I now say to all those in the Church who have been entrusted to my service: Stand firm in the faith! Do not let yourselves be confused! . . . Jesus Christ is truly the way, the truth and the life—and the Church, with all its insufficiencies, is truly His body.”
That was the great lesson they taught, lived out, and even, you might say, embodied. If anyone ever looked like a bulwark, it was Cardinal Pell; and there was something in Benedict’s prayerful, meditative demeanor that suggested a real purity of heart—which, as Kierkegaard said, means “to will one thing.”
Dan Hitchens is a senior editor at First Things.
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Images by Peter Nguyen and Kerry Myers licensed via Creative Commons and Creative Commons. Images edited and cropped.