Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge watched from Germany as Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, and considers what the pope’s journey means to his native Germany.
When Pope John Paul II died in April of 2005, NBC chartered a plane to fly a huge team of reporters, producers and technicians to Rome to cover the funeral and the selection of a successor. I wasn’t among them. Instead, I went to London to fill in for all those who went to Rome.
When the conclave to elect a new Pope began, I was moved to Bavaria. German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wasn’t considered by many in the media to stand much of a chance of succeeding the man he advised for years, but you never know — so there I was standing in the tiny town of Marktl am Inn where Ratzinger was born. The local priest confirmed my suspicion that this was a Papal goose chase after I asked him how many other reporters had interviewed him about Ratzinger so far: “You’re the first,” he said.
The prevailing guidance from the foreign desk was that if no Pope was selected in the first ballot, then Ratzinger was definitely out of the running. The first, second and third ballots came and went with only black smoke — then it went white.
No longer feeling part of the story, the crew and I were still interested in knowing who the next Pope would be, so we headed to the only public place that had a television: The local brauhouse, or bar.
So there we sat with about 40 other locals nursing apple juice while they downed beer. We watched as the curtain in the Vatican was pulled back to reveal the new Holy See. Joseph Ratzinger! The bar burst into cheers and some men actually were crying in their beer with joy.
The bells at the church began to ring without stop. People poured into the street celebrating despite a cold and steady rain. The mayor came out of city hall and delivered some words and then everyone headed for the church for a special mass to pray for the new German Pope and hometown hero. It was a moment for the memory books.
In the four years since, it hasn’t been happily ever after for Pope Benedict XVI. He created great controversy upsetting Muslims with his speech that criticized the faith of Mohammad. Then, just two weeks ago, he infuriated many Jews by reinstating a former Bishop who has been a vocal denier of the Holocaust. Richard Williamson’s words — and the earnestness of how he delivers them — are frightening. The Holy See has since said that Williamson must “unequivocally and publicly distance himself” from his statements about the Holocaust.
In one fell swoop, Germany’s hometown hero has triggered world condemnation and done so over Germany’s national shame. Denying the Holocaust in Germany is against the law. And so it was that Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel would be the first world leader to criticize her native son, saying, “This should not be allowed to pass without consequences.” For many Catholic Germans, a more painful conflict of faith is hard to imagine.
And yet, I can see the faithful people of Marktl am Inn once again heading to the local church and praying for their hometown boy, just as they did four years ago — only this time adding a bit stronger emphasis on the request for God to grant him wisdom.
– Martin Savidge