How recent seem those momentous spring days of 2005 when his predecessor both saddened us by his going and uplifted us with the dignity of his dying, reminding that only in faith can humanity see past the ineluctable frontier. And then the moment of succession, the emergence of the resolute figure of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to take the baton of St Peter in a time of unprecedented doubting and growing terror.
Benedict was, by the secular media analysis, a stop-gap and a throwback, a "reactionary", a "right-winger", an obscurantist. But what has emerged is what was implicit in his majesterial writings over several decades: a supreme intellect mounted in a most animated humanity, a man who in his lifetime has watched mankind lurch between great good and the greatest evil, and seeks to reconcile these observations with the truths he has inherited.
One of the many paradoxes of being Pope in the modern world is that you must speak through a megaphone controlled by your enemies. If John Paul II was an actor who communicated by disarming the megaphone-holders with charisma and charm, Benedict’s strategy is determined subversion of the cultural codes controlled by those who oppose virtually everything the Catholic Church and its leader now stand for.
From the outset Pope Benedict has eyeballed the culture of the age, his first two encyclicals confronting the two most pressing issues of our time: the haemorrhaging from public language of, respectively, love and hope. "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence ... I wish in my first Encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others", he wrote in Deus Caritas Est. God is love, not hate.
This subtle and brilliant Pope has struggled to be heard in a media climate characterised by sabotage and diversion. Repeatedly the media sought to distort or reduce his statements, to make them fit with prejudices unfurled on his election. But Benedict has emerged from the episodes of Regensburg and La Sapienza, and more recently from attempted misrepresentations of his statements about human sexuality and the controversy concerning condoms as a means of combating Aids, as a man of courage and grace, his message undiluted, his status enhanced in the human spaces beyond the news desks and the studios of the international media.
The importance of Benedict is that he brings an intellectual rigour to the core of Christianity in the public square, expounding and illuminating the core connections, and disconnections, between Christianity and modern culture. John Paul II was a charismatic figure and a brilliant philosopher but in his public persona tended to emit a dualistic message: soft and loveable on the one hand but rigidly and even simplistically traditionalist on the other. Of course, this had a lot to do with media treatment of his message and personality, largely overlooking his vast canon of philosophical writings. Benedict is adept at bringing Catholic legalisms back to their core significance, at reaching out, in spite of the background noise created around him by the media, to the educated generations of young people who now, as he correctly identified, hunger for something to transform the lassitude that has been invoked in them by a culture selling sensation and freedom but nothing approaching the kind of satisfaction they crave.
Pope Benedict is a man who cannot be put in any box. He has a reputation as a theological traditionalist, but culturally he appears as a modernist, even at times as someone who comprehends the post-modernist impulse even better than many of its adherents. Occasionally he strikes a wrong note, such as his criticism of the Harry Potter phenomenon, apparently at the prompting of a sole individual with an obsession in this connections, and which seemed to have been delivered without a thorough perusal of the books. Such interventions occasionally serve to bolster the media caricature of a pope out of touch with modern society, when in truth they are simply the inevitable blind spots of a man in his ninth decade.
In truth he is the most modern and radical of popes. When he speaks, he does so as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but his concern seems to be for the soul of society. He faces an age in the throes of an identity crisis and seeks to show it the way out. His project is the restoration to Western culture of an integrated concept of reason, the re-separation of the metaphysical from the physical. The unarmed coup of the 1960s, which sought to install scientific-rationalism as the guiding cultural light of the age, has failed to convince even its own adherents, who, alarmed by the listlessness of their children and the imminence of the darkness they have themselves summoned, now cry out for reassurance to neo-atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
But already, the idea that “God is dead” has become yesterday’s news, as modern societies seek to move beyond reductionist forms of reason to something that incorporates more of the human experience than merely the head. As the ideologies of the Sixties' "freedom" project shatter on the rocks of reality; as the proponents of these ideologies begin to perceive that they do not, after all, have answers to the most fundamental dilemmas of humanity; as we slouch towards what my esteemed colleague Magdi Allam has called "the suicide of our civilization"; we may hope and pray that Benedict remains with us through the next crucial decade, whisperingly conveying his ancient truths through the megaphone of his enemies.