A Very Special “Rosenmontag” – “Frolic Monday” – for Benedict XVI
Guest post by A Marian Soul
Today is Rosenmontag, Frolic Monday, the Monday before Lent begins – the day that is the highlight of the German Carnival. Ask any Bavarian or Rhinelander. Parades and floats abound, candy and tulips are thrown into the crowd, and not a few glasses of Kolsch are consumed in a final moment of frivolity before the austerities of Lent. Rosenmontag is also by tradition a day for games and pranks, a day for having a little fun and laughing even in the midst of life’s trials and difficulties.
And it is a day that has always been dear to the heart of Joseph Ratzinger, our late beloved Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI. As will be shown, he had – and still has – a very special affinity for this day, and thus it is quite significant that it was on Rosenmontag, February 11, 2013, two days before the start of Lent, that Pope Benedict XVI made his Declaratio by which he announced his delayed resignation of the papal ministerium seventeen days later, on February 28, 2013. On this first Rosenmontag after the passing of Benedict XVI, it will not be out of place to consider what this day meant to Papa Benedetto, and what he meant to say to us by his dramatic action exactly ten years ago on this day.
Pay attention now as we set up a few seemingly unrelated “dots” that will promptly be “connected” in an astonishing way. First, it is a fact that the young Joseph Ratzinger was an impassioned fan of a Bavarian comedian named Karl Valentin (1882-1948). Valentin appeared in many silent films in the 1920s and was known as the “Charlie Chaplin of Germany.” Valentin had a sharp linguistic ability and was known for his brilliant use of plays on words in which a misunderstanding about the meaning of words would form the basis for a comedy routine. One critic referred to Valentin as a Wortzerklauberer – a wordsmith – “someone who tears apart words and language to forcefully extract and dissect their inherent meaning.”
Of course, it’s true that many young Germans of Joseph Ratzinger’s generation enjoyed Valentin’s films at the cinema. But the young German theologian manifested a rather extraordinary level of devotion to the Bavarian comedian. Indeed, in his 2016 book-interview Last Conversations with journalist Peter Seewald, Benedict XVI explained that his devotion to Karl Valentin was so great that when Valentin died in 1948, he [Ratzinger] walked fifteen kilometers on foot each way in order to make a pilgrimage to Valentin’s grave in Planegg. That’s quite an impressive gesture coming from a 21-year-old theology student. When we consider the further fact that Karl Valentin died on Rosenmontag, February 9, 1948 – the day on which Bavarians make merry and play pranks on one another before Lent – we may conclude that Rosenmontag would have taken on a very special personal significance for Joseph Ratzinger, even beyond that of a typical Bavarian.
Nor did Ratzinger’s dedication end with Valentin’s death. Far from it. Some forty years later, on January 4, 1989, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made a special trip to Paris to be officially inducted into the “Order of Karl Valentin” by the Narrhalla Carnival Association of Munich – the oldest carnival club in Munich, which boasts on its website, “We’ve been celebrating carnival since 1893!” The Order was founded in 1973, and each year the association gives the award to “a personality from the fields of art, politics, science, literature, or sport for a humorous or subtle remark or deed, for exceptional work as an artist, or to an outstanding person in public life.”
In his acceptance speech, Cardinal Ratzinger said that he was happy to accept the award in honor of Valentin because of how important it is to “make fun of ourselves amidst the seriousness of the world.” He continued, “Some expressed hesitation about the fact that such an award would be accepted by someone who has such a serious occupation like mine. [At the time, Cardinal Ratzinger was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith]. To me it seems that it suits me well, since it is the privilege of “fools” to tell the truth. In the palaces of ancient potentates, the court jester was often the only one who had the luxury of being able to tell the truth. . . . And since for my job I have to tell the truth, I am quite happy to have been received into the category of those who enjoy this privilege . . . ‘We are fools for the love of Christ (1 Cor 4:10).” Cardinal Ratzinger understood the paradox at the heart of Saint Paul’s teaching in his First Letter to the Corinthians: those who are faithful to the call of Christ will often seem to be weak; they will be held in disrepute in the eyes of the world. And yet, Paul says, “Be imitators of me.” (1 Cor 4:16).
All this background brings us to the fateful Rosenmontag of ten years ago: February 11, 2013, the Monday before Lent, Frolic Monday of Carnival, the same day on which Karl Valentin died in 1948. On that Monday morning, in the presence of the cardinals, Pope Benedict read the prepared Latin text of his Declaratio in which he mysteriously announced that as of the following February 28 he would no longer exercise the ministerium of the Successor of Peter. The international media immediately announced that Benedict XVI had “abdicated,” and by now it is no secret that the enemies of the Catholic Faith, who had long coveted the Chair of Peter, were finally able to usurp the Throne and establish one of their own in authority over the Church. It was a day that in many ways remains the defining moment of the Church in our time, an event that has baffled commentators, a choice that undeniably brought Benedict XVI into disrepute among faithful Catholics (he was of course already despised by Bergoglians even before they had the name), with accusations that his resignation was an act of weakness and cowardice, that he fled for fear of the wolves. What could Joseph Ratzinger have possibly been thinking on the morning of Monday, February 11, 2013? Whatever could have possessed him to do such a thing?
In Last Conversations, Peter Seewald asked Benedict XVI (in 2016): “Originally you wanted to step down in December, but then you decided to resign on February 11, Rosenmontag, the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes. Did this have a symbolic meaning?”
Benedict XVI responded to Seewald: “I was not aware that it was Rosenmontag.”
Full stop. Given all that we have read here about the significance of this day for Bavarians and for the life of Joseph Ratzinger, is it conceivable that Benedict XVI “was not aware” of it? It seems obvious, given the context, that this statement was made to Seewald with a Karl-Valentin-inspired twinkle in his eye – it was a play on words – a Wortzerklauberer – that must be carefully dissected in order to be understood.
Achtung. Pay attention as you read Benedict’s full answer to Seewald’s loaded question:
“I was not aware that it was Rosenmontag. In Germany this even caused me some problems. It was the day of Our Lady of Lourdes. The feast day of Bernadette of Lourdes, in turn, coincides with my birthday. For this reason, it seemed right to choose that specific day.” Seewald then adds: “The date therefore has . . .” And Benedict XVI completes the sentence: “. . . an interior connection, yes.”
As Italian journalist Andrea Cionci has pointed out in his investigative study The Ratzinger Code, the subtle play on words here is the use of the present tense. Benedict, in tandem with Seewald, does not say that the date had an interior significance but that it has one – that is, that Rosenmontag continues to have an interior connection to the baffling meaning of what happened on February 11, 2013, the day Benedict XVI made a fool of himself in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of many faithful Catholics who continue to struggle to understand why he would ever have done such a thing. It is a day for playing pranks and for plays on words. And just as the court jester was often the only one who could tell the truth at court, so also in a Church that is full of fear and frustration, one in which the princes (that is, the cardinals) conspire together against the Lord and his Anointed (see Psalm 2), Benedict XVI chose to play the fool on Rosenmontag, handing over the ecclesiastical power his enemies so coveted, entrusting himself along with the Church into the hands of the Father. He gave them what they wanted, but at the same time, when seen with the eyes of faith, his action enabled him to elude their grasp. A Carnival prank worthy of the name if ever there was one.
Benedict’s resignation will continue to baffle, and no doubt it will continue to be dissected and discussed for generations to come. But in the end, Benedict’s resignation was a choice inspired by the faith of a man who was completely free – something that can be said of few, if any, of either his progressive enemies or his conservative critics.
On his first Rosenmontag in the next life, may we not pray that Joseph Ratzinger is now among the communion of saints, perhaps including his childhood hero Karl Valentin, with whom he is enjoying some heartfelt and much needed laughter? Happy Carnival, Holy Father, and Godspeed to you.
“We have become a spectacle to the world. . . . We are fools on Christ’s account.” (1 Cor 4:9-10)
 Läpple A., Benedetto XVI e le sue radici, Marcianum Press, 2014, as quoted in A. Cionci, The Ratzinger Code, Byoblu Edizioni, 2022, ch. 22.