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THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: Elegies, Eulogies, and History

By DEACON RICK BAUER
04/02/2021 | Comments

We are in a time of remembering and mourning those who have recently died during this pandemic, but death and its customary remembrances are a common enough occurrence of what we should all be mindful of in the achievements of notable lives around us.

Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of them Admirable

An elegy, my high school English teacher would remind me, is a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation especially for one who is dead. In “Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of them Admirable,” George Weigel offers his observations in 68 essays on the lives of the memorable, mainly from the past century. We are treated to some notion as to the purpose of assembling these individuals in one book, as Weigel observes that “each of the people I have memorialized has something to teach us today about righteous and noble living . . .  although a few of them teach those lessons along the old via negativa.”

Whether Weigel is sketching the lives of history-making popes like St. John Paul II, major league race barrier-breaking baseball heroes like Jackie Robinson, fellow writers and television personalities like Charles Krauthammer and William F. Buckley, Jr., or consequential politicians like Henry Hyde, Sargent Shriver, and the irrepressible Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Weigel helps readers to understand the deep truths of the human condition illuminated by each of these not-forgotten lives.

“In these deft summations of lives to remember, George Weigel displays his distinctive blend of philosophic sophistication and humane sympathy,” writes columnist George F. Will. “His farewells — mostly fond, a few bracingly acerbic — are an intellectual feast to be nibbled now and then, or consumed in one sitting. Either way, readers will be nourished.”

Weigel’s insights on the historic contributions of Jackie Robinson were especially inspiring during a time in our nation’s psyche when we have opportunity to realize again where our nation’s promises were unrealized for both slave and newly free. Citing the four most memorable moments of America’s struggle for civil rights, Weigel rightly identifies Brown v. Board of Education in May of 1954, the “I Have a Dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C., in August of 1963, and 56 years ago, the infamous “Bloody Sunday” on Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which led in great measure to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The fourth most significant act for civil rights, Weigel observes, had already taken place before the first three listed, on April 15, 1947, when the Brooklyn Dodgers started Jackie Robinson as the first African American to play in a major-league game since the infamous “color line” was drawn in the 1880’s. Weigel’s insights into Robinson’s character and grace, and his manager Branch Rickey’s knowledge that only a brave and humble man would know how and when to demonstrate his equality—inside the lines. Rather than hollering back at bigots during his rookie year, Robinson beat them with a slashing, attacking style of baseball that helped lift the Dodgers to the National League pennant that year. It was a performance that change baseball, and soon showed how to change America.

Having heard more than my share of poorly prepared and badly delivered eulogies (it is with good reason that they are not a formal part of the liturgical order for the Catholic funeral (Requiem) Mass), it is a difficult art to eulogize, but Weigel’s short remembrances — insightful and compassionate, celebratory and cautionary — are vivid reminders that we do indeed live among a cloud of witnesses, and how they and others should be remembered. 

 

Benedict XVI: A Life (Volume 1)

Sometimes you receive a book and realize quite quickly that it will make an outsized impact on the way people see the life and contribution of an individual. So it was with Peter Seewald’s “Benedict XVI: A Life” (Volume 1); a clear, forthright reflection on the turbulent and often exciting life of Joseph Ratzinger, covering his birth and youth in Bavaria, his formation as both a Catholic priest and systematic theologian, and his surprising rise to influence in the global Catholic Church. Volume 1 (only available in English at this time) takes us through his academic career and his participation in the Second Vatican Council.  

“Benedict XVI: A Life” offers insight into the young life and rise through the Church’s ranks of a man who would become both a hero and a lightning rod for Catholics the world over. Based on countless hours of interviews in Rome with Benedict himself, Peter Seewald has created a much-anticipated two-volume biography (Volume 2 will be available in English later this year) that will serve as the definitive record of the life of Joseph Ratzinger and the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI.

It was with great interest that I learned about the life of Ratzinger during the rise of Nazi Germany and World War II, and of his particular understanding of the activities (both formal and informal) of Vatican II.  On a personal note, my wife Mary and I got to meet Pope Benedict XVI in Rome, and to this day we remember his special kindness and the glint-filled smile in his eyes. This book was a chance to delve deeper into this man’s formation, and the reading was thoroughly enjoyable and informative.   

Volume I follows the early life of the future Pope, from his days growing up in Germany and his conscription into the Hitler Youth movement during World War II, to his career as an academic theologian and rise in the priesthood, eventually to be Archbishop of Munich. I learned about the oppressive and totalitarian attempts to control the young Ratzinger’s family by Nazi partisans (his father being a policeman, he became a target of particular significance), but the steadfastness and faith of his parents in spite of pressure to confirm to Nazi ideology protected them from harm. At one point, it became necessary for Ratzinger’s father to secure other police work in a smaller city less influenced by Nazi activities. Any idle prattling about Ratzinger being influenced by Nazi ideology is quickly put to rest by the facts and the interviews of those close to the young Catholic boy. 

Young Father Ratzinger’s chance meeting with German Cardinal Josef Frings caused him to play an accidental but life-changing role in the Second Vatican Council. The young priest found himself acting as advisor to Cardinal Frings on the work of the council. Pope John XXIII was very impressed with a key lecture given by Cardinal Frings in Rome and remarked to him, “You have said everything that I’ve thought and wanted to say but was unable to say myself.” A bit startled, Cardinal Frings answered, “Holy Father, I did not actually write the lecture. A young professor [Ratzinger] wrote it.” To this, John XXIII replied, “I did not write my last encyclical myself either. You just need the right advisor.” While Ratzinger’s promotion could not be predicted by anyone, his meteoric rise proves the old adage, “fortune favors the prepared.”

Seewald artfully weaves together politics, church history, philosophy, and theology to show how these influenced and shaped the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI. Seewald — both journalist and historian, had formally declared himself an atheist; after a few interviews with Joseph Ratzinger, together with his family, he returned to the Catholic Church. He has the trust of his subject, but he also maintains the trust of his reader in touching on the more difficult aspects of Ratzinger’s life.

According to Ratzinger, what truly invigorates the Church is the faith of fishermen, “simple people,” those who are “poor in spirit,” who are truly blessed, as opposed to the “cold religion of academics,” who are always complicating things. Of all people, Ratzinger would know best of what he speaks.

(For comments, reactions, or to suggest a book or resource that might be helpful for Catholics, please write Deacon Rick at rbauer@diocs.org.)


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