by Jessica Langdon
ATCHISON — Recovering from the flu, Matthew Ramage checked his email from the comfort of home before deciding whether he’d head to Benedictine College here to teach on Feb. 11 — when he read a message that made the decision for him.
The email asked Ramage, an assistant professor of theology at the college, to do some media interviews about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
“I thought, ‘Is this a joke?’” said Ramage of the news from Rome that broke early that morning in the United States.
“I didn’t see it coming any more than many of the bishops and cardinals,” he said.
Having studied under one of Pope Benedict’s students, Ramage feels both a personal and professional connection to this pope.
“I’m like an intellectual grandson of his,” he said, and he credits Pope Benedict XVI’s influence with helping him grow in faith.
Ramage teaches courses at Benedictine delving into the theology and general thought of Pope Benedict XVI.
His own dissertation and a forthcoming book relate to this pope’s biblical interpretation.
So when he saw the email requesting his insight into the pope’s surprising announcement on Feb. 11, he immediately looked online and, sure enough, discovered its full text.
The announcement cited 85-year-old Pope Benedict’s age and lack of strength to continue to minister as pope.
Seeing it was real, Ramage headed to the college, where he and his students spent the first 10 minutes talking about the announcement.
Everyone already knew, but that didn’t diminish the astonishment.
Ramage fielded questions like, “Is that even possible?” and “Can he do that?”
The answer, he told them, is yes, a pope can do that, even though the last time it happened was nearly 600 years ago when Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1415.
Many people might have expected Pope Benedict XVI to remain in office through frailties and declining health until death, as his predecessor Pope John Paul II did. But the papacy doesn’t require that path.
“As long as you’re not going against anything in the Catholic Church, there’s room for different approaches,” said Ramage, adding that this doesn’t necessarily set a precedent or dictate what a future pope might do.
Ramage had several opportunities to see Pope Benedict, including this past fall when he went to Rome with several Benedictine students, who were studying abroad, for the canonizations of saints, including Kateri Tekakwitha.
Ramage, who has attended several liturgies with Pope Benedict, could tell that the pope’s health had declined between 2006 and 2012.
The pope’s decision to step down on Feb. 28 touched the professor.
“You see the greatest act of humility by a reigning pope that perhaps you could see,” Ramage said.
Pope Benedict had to know many people wouldn’t understand and some would second-guess this action, but he was still willing to take that step, he said.
“He’s a man of conviction, and he’s willing to act on it because he knows it’s right,” said Ramage. “He did this because he thinks sincerely this move is going to be a great thing for the church, and it’s God’s will.”
Sure, there is certainly time and room for shock, sadness and even mourning, Ramage told his students. But this is also a time for hope in the church.
While Pope Benedict XVI likely won’t be remembered for his charisma like Pope John Paul II — a man still beloved in Italy — he leaves a significant legacy, Ramage believes.
“He’s going to go down as one of the most brilliant minds in church history, I think,” he said. “In part, he’ll be remembered for his desire to put Catholics back in touch with the person of Jesus Christ.”
He pointed to Pope Benedict’s three-part “Jesus of Nazareth” book series and other writings. This pope recognized that humans in today’s world struggle with difficult issues, and he demonstrated a “synthesis of ancient and modern thought.”
“As a theologian, it shows me the path for how to do theology well, for how to bring people into a relationship with God, to more clearly announce the Gospel in the world,” said Ramage, “because he shows us how to tackle modern issues with courage and with the strength of the church’s constant tradition and modern thought.”
Pope Benedict provided inspiration to Ramage and offered answers he hadn’t found elsewhere.
He knows he will feel a lost connection when Pope Benedict steps down but, at the same time, Ramage looks forward with hope to the future, built on the foundation Pope Benedict has helped put in place.
“Any time you have a pope change, you have a new movement of the Holy Spirit in the church,” said Ramage. “The Catholic Church has a constant tradition that doesn’t change. The beautiful thing is that each pope has his own charism.
“We’re going to see a new conclave with a new pope who has new ideas about the evangelization of the world.”