My seminary classmate finally realized that our theological debate was over and she was defeated. In her frustration she sputtered, "You ... you ... Ratzinger!"
It was the nicest thing anyone ever said to me during my seminary training. I told her so. She laughed. I think of that incident almost every time Benedict XVI comes to mind.
The attempted insult was to associate my religious conservatism with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Cardinal Ratzinger had been the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for about nine years and was an anethema to religious progressives far and wide. It's useful to recall that office of the Curia headed by Ratzinger was formerly known as the Inquisition. In fact, before the Catholic agency was renamed, Fr. Ratzinger would have been known as the inquisitor general rather than Prefect.
Joseph Ratzinger was a perfect choice to monitor the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith. He was a well-established scholar and theologian. As of this year he has written 66 books, about a book every year since he was ordained to the priesthood. I have several in my library. His recent trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth, is required reading for a fully functional Christian, regardless of denomination.
Now known to history as Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger is a product of the world's greatest institutional meritocracy. The modern Roman Catholic Church only puts the best and brightest on the Throne of Peter. Benedict XVI, like his predecessor, the blessed John Paul II, were some of the most dazzling lights in the Christian world of our time.
When John Paul II appointed Ratzinger to head the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it was a clear signal to Roman Catholics, and the world, that the historic orthodoxy of Catholic belief was what had worked for two millennia, and was going to continue.
In 2005 the College of Cardinals apparently agreed and elected Ratzinger as John Paul II's successor to the papacy. In two terms of the papacy the course of Roman Catholicism has been set for at least 50 years, perhaps a century. Chances are the College of Cardinals will repeat this affirmation with their choice of the next Pope.
Ah, the next pope.
Well, the old saying to affirm the obvious, "Is the Pope Italian?" has pretty much disappeared from use because a Pole and German have guided the Roman Catholic Church for the past generation. And chances are another non-Italian will succeed Benedict XVI.
The array of candidates for the next pope, called "papabile," is impressive. There are a couple of Italians and a couple of Americans on the short list. The typical commentator will presume that a Yankee pope is improbable because it would just create another venue for American dominance. Fortunately, the College of Cardinals will be listening to the Holy Spirit rather than pundits, so we'll see.
What is likely to happen is a continuation of the geographical transition. The first step was moving from Italian popes to leaders from other European countries (Poland and Germany). The geographical transition could be more striking this time with a pope from Africa or Asia.
The Asian papabile is Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines. At 55 he's three years younger than John Paul II when he ascended the throne of Peter. Tagle is young-looking, too. So much so that when he was nominated to be a cardinal, John Paul II had to be reassured by the then-Cardinal Ratzinger that Tagle had received his first communion.
The most mentioned African papabile is Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. In fact, British bookies are offering four to one odds in favor of his election. Unlike pundits who are merely paid to have an opinion, a bookmaker makes a living having the right opinion most of the time. So, the oddsmakers predictions about the future leadership of the Roman Catholic Church would have to be taken seriously.
Day after tomorrow Benedict XVI will clock in his last day as pope. There are at least a dozen wise and holy men who can succeed him.
They have been prepared by a lifetime of ministry for this moment. No country in the world has the population of the membership of the Roman Catholic Church. The office of the papacy is the largest leadership challenge on the planet.