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Pope Benedict XVI and Europe

Originally published in Evangelization & Culture,

Issue No. 16 “Pope Benedict XVI,” Summer 2023

By Andrew Petiprin


In 1987, angels stood watch over a divided Europe.

At least, that is where German director Wim Wenders imagined them in his film Der Himmel über Berlin, infelicitously translated as Wings of Desire in English. Looking out for countless souls during one of the last grim winters of the Cold War, the angel Damiel, played by Bruno Ganz, realizes he loves humanity as his God does, but he also falls in love as only a human can. At the end of the film, the now-human Damiel sits alone in a bar, when the ravishing Marion, clad in red, approaches, telling him, “We are now the times…. The whole world is taking part in our decision…. We incarnate something.”

Joseph Ratzinger succeeded St. John Paul II as Pope in 2005, and when he stepped onto the balcony to greet the world for the first time as Benedict XVI, he did so as a Christian with a long track record of theorizing about the spiritual and cultural identity of his home continent, whose rich film heritage had often done the same.

He incarnated something.

To start, Ratzinger’s choice of name hearkened all the way back to the beginning of Christendom. Saint Benedict of Nursia, the patron saint of Europe, lived amid the decadence of the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. He created a famous rule for Christian community life and is widely regarded as the founder of Western monasticism, which quickly became part of the bedrock of an enormous cultural infrastructure that was damaged in the Protestant Reformation, but which only finally passed out of widespread relevance at the end of World War I – significantly, during the reign of the previous Pope named Benedict – the Fifteenth, who reigned from 1914 to 1922.

As Ratzinger came into his mature years as a priest and scholar in West Germany, his homeland transitioned from the ruins of World War II to becoming the bulwark of a new superstate. Like many of the great minds of his generation, Ratzinger shared the fascination many European intellectuals had with the prospect of a baptized Europe living into a humane, rationalist form of Christian society that Naziism had mocked with its nationalistic violence and antisemitic, neo-pagan religion. In 1991, Ratzinger looked back on the immediate post-World War II period as “the great hour of Christian politicians,”[1] led by the first chancellor of West Germany, the devout Catholic from Cologne, Konrad Adenauer.

To some degree, Ratzinger grew skeptical prior to the end of the Cold War about whether Europe could hold onto its Christian identity and avoid collapsing in the vain pursuit of social progress without a transcendent end. As both an academic and a churchman, Ratzinger could see that as each decade passed, the intellectual current in Europe made ever stronger waves to drown out its Christian past. As Fr. James Schall, S.J. describes it, “Modern European philosophy has been, in a large sense, an effort to replace the Christian understanding of man’s transcendent destiny with an inner-world utopian ideal.”[2] Some European cinema has gone along with or even spearheaded the anti-Christian philosophical tradition, but a great deal of it since 1990 has not, either implicitly or explicitly carrying forward the older Christian tradition that Ratzinger surely hoped to see adapted for modern Europe, and the modern world.

When the Berlin Wall came down, Ratzinger likened the astonishing events to the biblical Battle of Jericho. He noted, “It was not military force that threw down the walls; they collapsed in the presence of a liturgical procession with God’s holy ark and in the presence of the music that accompanied this liturgy.”[3] It was a spiritual victory in which “powers of soul…ultimately became stronger than the external forces.”[4] The challenge ahead of Europe at this “third” turning akin to the end of World War I and World War II – only this time bloodless – was whether Europe would acknowledge its dormant spiritual identity as the renewed, living force of further desirable change, followed by lasting peace and stability. Would Europe suddenly realize Wenders’ angels had been with them all along?

Another contemporary European filmmaker helps us find out.

In 1990, the Danish director Lars von Trier made a Kafkaesque drama called Europa, which sets the stage for our study. Trier establishes what we shall see in various ways in the works of the other directors in this book – namely, that Europe is an idea, and an idea conceived in long centuries of Christian culture dating back to the arrival of Saints Peter and Paul. As Ratzinger wrote in 2004, shortly before his election as Pope Benedict XVI, “Europe is not a continent that can be comprehended neatly in geographical terms; rather, it is a cultural and historical concept.”[5]

In an interview in 1991, Trier confessed that “Europe has been the destination of my dreams”[6] – on the surface, an odd thing to for a man to say who was born in Denmark and famously hates to travel. But with Europa, set at the end of World War II and filmed in Denmark and Poland just a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Trier anticipates Ratzinger’s comment, but also draws on the psychoanalytic perspective of Karl Jung.

Aesthetically and thematically, Trier’s film follows Wenders’ Wings of Desire, perhaps most strikingly in the mix of black-and-white and color photography, and in the common setting of Berlin – in 1945, as in 1987, a city offering itself to the world as a place of intriguing possibility. In the opening scene of Europa, we find ourselves on railway tracks, as if looking out from the front of a speeding train. We then hear the voice of the actor Max von Sydow – a famous alumnus of the films of Ingmar Bergman, another major influence on Trier – playing the part of the hypnotist, telling us, “On the count of ten, you will be in Europa.” The audience then enters the continent through the eyes of the main character, Leopold Kessler, played by the Franco-American actor Jean-Marc Barre.

The Church lurks in the background throughout Europa, and it comes to the forefront in significant scenes. When asked whether he is a Catholic, Kessler replies that he is not religious, and Max Hartmann, once a wealthy German industrialist now trying desperately to bury his Nazi past, praises Kessler for being sensible rather than superstitious. But Max’s son Lawrence, played by frequent Von Trier collaborator Udo Kier, is a believer who admits that the Church presents a “sophisticated waste” to those without eyes to see. But when a priest later encourages Kessler to attend Midnight Mass in a bombed-out church, he decides to go, finding himself enraptured by the natural religion of snowfall and candlelight, but also by the traditional liturgy happening at the altar.

Pope Benedict XVI believed Christianity and Europe were destined to rise or fall together, and as he became Pope, he worried that Europe was “internally paralyzed” by the diminishing of the continent’s “sustaining spiritual forces.”[7] But he concluded hopefully that Christians could and should embrace their identity as “creative minorities” in a Church-haunted culture, and “help Europe to reclaim what is best in its heritage and to thereby place itself at the service of humankind.”[8] Europe simply had too much Christianity imbedded deep in its foundations to shake it off easily or imminently. It still had a mission. It incarnated something.

Whether intentionally or not, Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Trier’s Europa provide two examples of how Europe’s Christian patrimony provides the kind of spiritual gifts Pope Benedict XVI hoped would both revitalize the continent he loved and inspire people elsewhere. As we mourn the pontiff’s passing, we give thanks for the land and the culture that made him who he was, and pray that its cinematic tradition may continue to carry forward his mission.


[1] A Turning Point for Europe, Trans. Brian McNeil, C.R.V. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994). Originally published in German as Wendezeit für Europa? Diagnosen und Prognosen zur Lage von Kirche und Welt, 1991 by Johannes Verlag, Einsiedeln

[2] “Foreward,” in Turning Point, 15.

[3] Turning Point, 149.

[4] Turning Point, 98.

[5] Europe Today and Tomorrow, Trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), 11. Originally published in Italian as Europa: I suoi fondamenti oggi e domani, 2004 by Edizioni San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo (Milan)

[6] Trier’s Element, directed by Nikolaj Buchardt, 1991.

[7] “The Spiritual Roots of Europe: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, Trans. Michael F. Moore (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 66.

[8] Without Roots, 80.


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