Last Saturday Archbishop Georg Gänswein stood amid the Gothic splendour of Cologne Cathedral and delivered a message from Benedict XVI. Speaking near the plain wooden coffin of Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the archbishop read out these words: “We know that it was hard for him, the passionate shepherd and pastor of souls, to leave his office, and this precisely at a time when the Church had a pressing need for shepherds who would oppose the dictatorship of the zeitgeist, fully resolved to act and think from a faith standpoint. Yet I have been all the more impressed that in this last period of his life he learned to let go, and live increasingly from the conviction that the Lord does not leave his Church, even if at times the ship is almost filled to the point of shipwreck.”

The funeral Mass was barely over before the chatter began on social media: had the Pope Emeritus just declared that the Church was in crisis? Some media outlets thought so. “Pope Benedict XVI says Church is ‘on the verge of capsizing’  was the headline at lifesitenews.com, and the thought was echoed elsewhere.

Why might journalists think that Benedict XVI would use the funeral of a cherished friend indirectly to criticise Pope Francis? Perhaps because Cardinal Meisner was one of the four cardinals who signed the dubia: five pointed requests to Francis to clarify the meaning of his family document Amoris Laetitia (so far unanswered). At the same time, the Church has descended into a factionalism not seen since the 1970s. Against this background, it was perhaps inevitable that reporters would try to read Benedict XVI’s message as a critique of his successor.

The phrase they latched on to – “the ship is almost filled to the point of shipwreck” – is one of the German pope’s favourite images. He used it during his famous meditations on the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum in 2005. Addressing God, he said: “Your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side.”

A year later he said in a homily: “The barque of the Church is forever being buffeted by the wind of ideologies that penetrate it with their waters, seemingly condemning it to sink.” And at his final general audience in 2013, he reflected: “I always knew the Lord was with us and that the Church was not mine, but his, and he would not let it sink.”

These examples suggest that Benedict XVI thinks the Church is in constant jeopardy: the Barque of Peter is “forever being buffeted” by hostile forces. But that is only one part of the image. The second, and most important, is that, no matter how queasy the passengers may feel, God is guiding the ship towards a safe harbour.

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