The Omen


Whatever hell is, it is not a simple place. Some are of the opinion that hell is everywhere: The damned are at liberty to roam about the universe but carry their punishment with them. Others believe that the damned are limited in their movements and confined to a horribly definite place. Still others hold that hell is but a metaphor for separation from God. Saint Chrysostom reminds us: “We must not ask where hell is, but how we are to escape it.”

Much can be learned of a man from his conception of hell. Rereading scriptural accounts, the new pope, former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, has suggested something novel. Noting Christ’s references to “a chattering of teeth” among the damned, he reminds us that such chattering is not the reaction to burning heat but to extreme cold, and describes the pains of hell as those of the most terrible and desolate coldness: an emblematic hell for the icily brilliant new pope.

Several members of the conclave that elected him noted that the new pope did not need to retire to reflect upon his choice of papal name and that he had one at the ready. The choice of name is the first statement made by a pope.
Nomen est omen, as the saying goes, and this is one of the cases where one can choose one’s omen.

Nomen was indeed not always omen, and until the election of Mercurius in 533, a pope simply bore the name he had been baptized with. The pagan and changeable associations of Mercurius were felt to be inappropriate for the rock of the church, however, and Mercurius chose the name Pope John II. The name that the least mercurial of the College of Cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger, had at the ready announced a broad program he has since begun to sketch. Saint Benedict is a patron saint—and a patron saint of something large: Europe. Popes have always been European, but with the Catholic Church becoming less and less so—growing rapidly in the third world while shrinking in the European first world—the choice of name was a choice of focus. The austere motto of the Benedictine order, “Succisa Virescit” (“Pruned, it grows again”), was perhaps not far from his thoughts.

But choosing a papal name is also to establish a link to its recent bearers. The most recent, Benedict XV, born Giacomo della Chiesa, “James of the Church,” an omen nomen if there ever was one), reigned from 1914 to 1922 and is remembered as “the pope of peace.” Equally important to the new pope is a more complex figure: Benedict XIV. Remembered as the most learned and intellectual of the popes, he reigned from 1740 to 1758 and ably used his learning and intelligence to steer the papacy through the rough waters of Europe’s Enlightenment. He ended the ban on writings defending Copernican astronomy, mandated the reform of the breviary to rid it of legends, supported the rights of indigenous peoples in Latin America, and allowed marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics. Voltaire, whose hobby was baiting clerics (on his deathbed he allowed a priest to visit him only to interrupt him when he began to speak of Jesus, “Stay if you must, but do not speak to me any more about that man and let me die in peace”), sought to provoke the pontiff by dedicating his (Muslim) tragedy
Mahomet to him. Benedict XIV responded with grace and wit in a letter to the sharp-tongued philosophe, and the two men of learning became correspondents. In christening himself Benedict XVI, the new pope unhesitatingly dubbed himself a European pope of peace and learning—and one with some pruning in mind.

Intelligence and learning are nothing that even Benedict XVI’s fiercest opponents (and they are not few) begrudge him. It’s the peace part that has been put into question. During his long tenure as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the successor to the Inquisition) he earned a reputation for inflexibility—which is, if one thinks carefully about the matter, the entire point of the post. It has been suggested that what the future will most remember about John Paul II’s long reign is not the chastising of tyrants, not the attempt on his life, not the skiing and swimming, nor his long-failing health, and not even the overthrow of Communism in his native Poland, but instead his artful rereading of the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II brought revolutionary changes into the Catholic Church and announced even more revolutionary ones. These further revolutionary changes were recommended, however, in terms very much open to interpretation.

A common but false etymology traces the word religion to the Latin religare—the act of binding together. Religion’s real root lies a letter away, however, in relegere—to reread. Called by John Paul II to Rome, then cardinal Ratzinger made a name for himself through his skill and agility in rereading Vatican II, and was for many the eminence rouge behind the eminence blanche of John Paul II’s smiling conservatism. Both in his public appearances—such as the debate on secularization held with neo-Enlightenment philosopher J Habermas to commemorate the one between Voltaire and Benedict XIV—and in his voluminous writings, the new pope has proved clever and clear in his rereadings of the most well-known texts. He has also shown himself rich in surprising ideas and brilliant changes of perspective. The Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff claimed that the new pope considers liberation theology “a Trojan horse for Marxism,” but for Benedict XVI things are never so simply stated. So often criticized for his hard-line opposition to women in the clergy, he has responded to such criticism with attacks on the ideology of “equality.” It makes him “shiver,” he has said, to see women made into “soldiers, garbage workers, and miners”—work that “out of respect for woman’s grandeur, their difference and their dignity they had hitherto not been subjected to.” As to the role of Rome in the universal church, he has said that the pope is not the “organ through which individual churches are to be called into line,” but rather, with classic economy of expression, “protection against excessive freedom.” He reminds his flock that “God has a rich sense of humor,” and that “humor is a constitutive part of the joy of Creation.” With an icy hell and an amusing God, the new pope does not seem so dour after all.

The last German pope, Adrian VI, was the first since Mercurius not to choose a new name as pope and the last to be elected by the College of Cardinals in his absence (Adrian was then serving as head inquisitor in Spain). A few months after his arrival in Rome, he was nearly killed when a crack in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—the room in which papal elections are held—opened up. A chunk of the ceiling came crashing down, narrowly missing the pontiff and instantly killing one of his trusted Swiss Guards. What Adrian saw when the dust cleared was a fault line running along the length of the ceiling, which, in a terrifying symbolic gesture, ran between the Finger of God and the finger of Adam in Michelangelo’s celebrated fresco panel. Fighting corruption in the Catholic Church, the Turks on Rhodes, the Lutherans in Germany, and the plague in Rome, Adrian died barely a year later. Benedict XVI faces the modern versions of these older problems, but his experience of Rome and of the Sistine Chapel, where he was elected, will hopefully prove a richer—and less perilous—one.

Leland de la Durantaye is an assistant professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.