The Church is still Ratzinger’s clown


By Patrick Schmadeke
Evangelization in the world today


I was struck with surprise several years ago to find that Father Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) began the first chapter of his “Introduction to Christianity” with a story of a clown. In the story, which he borrows from Søren Kierkegaard, a traveling circus catches fire. The clown, who was already dressed for the show, was sent to the next village to seek aid. The clown begged for help but, to his dismay, his pleas were interpreted by the villagers as a clever ploy to draw a crowd to the circus. The more serious his cry for help, the more impressed the villagers were with the ruse. In the end, unable to secure help, the circus and village were swallowed in fire.

When his book was originally published in 1968 in German (and in 1969 in English), Ratzinger was referring to the work of theologians and anyone who tries to share the faith with others. The Christian, wearing their “medieval, or at any rate old-fashioned, clown’s costume … is simply not taken seriously.” Like the villagers listening to the clown, they know he “is just giving a performance that has little or nothing to do with reality. So they can listen to him quite happily without having to be seriously concerned about what he is saying.”

This is the situation of the Church today: we are Ratzinger’s clown pleading in vain. But Ratzinger takes the image deeper. The story makes it seem as if the clown “is a man possessed of full knowledge who arrives with a perfectly clear message. The villagers to whom he hastens, in other words, those outside the faith, are conversely the completely ignorant, who only have to be told something of which they are completely unaware.” However, if we as the Church engage in thorough self-examination, we will “understand that our own situation is by no means so different from that of others (outside the faith) as we may have thought at the start.”


Our difficulty has two layers. First, the potential significance of Christianity for today in our post-Christian culture is deemed irrelevant. Some Catholics try to push back, to declare with greater tenacity, to shout all the louder. But like the clown in Ratzinger’s story, such efforts are in vain. The solution to the first layer requires the interiority Ratzinger suggests: to recognize that our situation is not all that different from those outside the Church.

Essential to our diocesan focus on welcoming and belonging is our readiness to see Christ in all people, the churched and unchurched alike. We have many resources to draw on as Catholics, from the sacramental worldview that God is in all things, the conviction that grace builds on nature, to the Eucharist itself.

We must also address the many compounding factors. From within, strident claims about “what it means to be Catholic” reflect a rarified self-righteousness that pushes others away, ironically, in the name of God. From without, cultural and political polarization create patterns of division that we Catholics are not immune to. Patience with ourselves and one another should be encouraged here as we navigate these challenges.

On a biographical note, Rat­zinger’s use of the image of a clown to describe the situation in which the Church found itself left me, originally, feeling not only surprise but disorientation. That disorientation, while uncomfortable, was necessary for personal growth. Reflection on our status as Ratzinger’s clown, blended with his invitation to an interiority that recognizes our solidarity with all, may cause disorientation. But it is a fruitful disorientation that is the first step towards greater insights.

(Patrick Schmadeke is director of evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)

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