On February 11, 2013 I was sitting in a Roman lecture hall, taking notes and trying not to be distracted by my Australian classmate whose phone kept buzzing. Finally, he turned to me and whispered, “The Holy Father just resigned.” I looked at him skeptically, saying, “That’s not possible. Someone is pulling your leg.” A few minutes later, the president of the university entered the hall and apologized for the interruption. Through tears, he confirmed that Pope Benedict XVI had announced his decision to abdicate the Chair of St. Peter. It was close to midday on a bright winter afternoon in Rome, and my friends and I left the university to walk back home to the seminary in shocked silence.
While St. John Paul II was the pope of my childhood, Benedict XVI was the pope of my time of vocational discernment and priestly formation. For that reason, I’ve always had a special affection for him, which I think was also true for my seminary classmates. Like John Paul, Benedict was present at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which he saw as the seminal event of his lifetime. Not yet a bishop, Joseph Ratzinger (his name prior to his election as pope) served at the Council as a 35-year-old theological advisor to the Archbishop of Cologne. Ratzinger was recognized early on as among the most outstanding theologians of his generation, and he was convinced of the great opportunity that the Council offered for needed reform in the Church. Despite its appearance of cultural strength in the post-war period, Ratzinger saw that there was already present in the Church a crisis of faith. In 1958, four years before the Council, he gave a lecture about the state of things in his native Germany. He said that when one meets the average person “he can assume with some certainty that he has a baptismal certificate, but not that he has a Christian frame of mind.” The Christian message somehow had lost its vitality among modern peoples, who believed themselves to be Christian but were, in fact, neo-pagan in their approach to existence. Like many of his contemporaries, including the future John Paul II, Ratzinger hoped that the Council would facilitate a new awakening of the Christian imagination and a reinvigoration of Faith in the hearts of Catholics. But the obstacles to that renewal after the Council were more formidable than anticipated. Ratzinger was a stabilizing presence during a tumultuous time, serving John Paul II as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 24 years before his election as Supreme Pontiff in 2005. Although he lived a largely hidden life since his historic resignation almost ten years ago, his influence as a thinker remains great, for his work was not motivated by a love of ideas, but by love for a Person.
In his first homily as pope in 2005, he said: “Are we not perhaps all afraid [that if] we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to Him, [that] He might take something away from us? [That we] will end up diminished and deprived of our freedom?… No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and He gives you everything. When we give ourselves to Him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.”
This is the message that I found compelling as a young man, trying to figure out the purpose of my life. It is, I think, the message that is central to renewal in the Church and to what made Pope Benedict XVI so wonderful. This week we said goodbye to him for the second time, but living in hope of seeing him again under the light of the Risen Lord, whom he loved so much.