by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
The death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was hardly a surprise. He was 95 years old and had been frail for many years.
At the time of his resignation of the papal office in early 2013, some thought his death was imminent. He lived for almost 10 more years, spending those years praying and interceding for the church he had already served so ably and selflessly for the better part of 60 years.
I first met Pope Benedict XVI in June of 1998. At the time, I was an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of St. Louis for less than a year. I was in Rome participating in the “ad limina” visit for the bishops of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska.
Every five years, a diocesan bishop must submit to the pope a report on the state of the church in his diocese. A few months after sending the report, the bishops come to Rome to pray at the tombs of the great apostles, Peter and Paul, and to meet with the Successor of Peter.
During the visit, the bishops meet with the prefects of the major dicasteries (the departments of the Roman Curia). We met with the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith, who was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
I had read some secular media reports describing Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope John Paul’s Doberman Pinscher or pit bull, who was a bully in fiercely defending the faith and treating harshly those with whom he disagreed. I was amazed by the contrast of the actual Cardinal Ratzinger to these false media portrayals. Cardinal Ratzinger was one of the most gentle, kind and unassuming human beings that I had ever met.
Indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger was a great defender of the faith, but not by intimidation and bullying. He defended the faith by articulating what we believe as Catholics in a very compelling and persuasive way. I left the meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger impressed not only by his intellectual brilliance but his interest in how he could assist us in our responsibility of being the primary teachers of the faith in our dioceses.
During his tenure as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was the architect of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The catechism was a remarkable achievement, providing a masterful, comprehensive articulation of the full breadth of our Catholic faith.
Even before becoming a bishop, the future Pope Benedict had an enormous influence on the Second Vatican Council. George Weigel in his recent book, “To Sanctify the World — the Vital Legacy of Vatican II,” gave a glimpse of the contribution then-Father Ratzinger made to the council by serving as a “peritus,” an expert consultant, to Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, Germany.
Cardinal Frings was a member of the Council’s Central Preparatory Commission and delivered a pre-conciliar speech in Genoa, Italy, describing the purpose and aspirations for the council. The speech had been written by Father Ratzinger. Several months later in Rome, Pope John XXIII embraced Cardinal Frings and said: “Eminence, I must thank you. Last night, I read your speech. . . . You have said everything that I’ve thought and wanted to say but was unable to say myself.”
Decades later, as Pope Benedict XVI, the former speech writer played a crucial role in helping the church correctly understand and implement the teaching of Vatican II.
Pope Benedict understood well the danger of what he termed the “dictatorship of relativism,” a belief that there is no truth. Relativism holds that each person can define his or her own truth, even if our particular truths contradict each other.
Combating the mistaken notion of the human person that results from relativism — namely, that each person can define themselves to be whatever they desire to be — Pope Benedict promoted a robust Christian humanism that appreciated the dignity of every human being created in the divine image and of such worth that God in the person of Jesus Christ immersed himself in our humanity and gave his life on Calvary for each of us.
Before becoming the Successor of Peter, Pope Benedict XVI was working on what became a three-volume description of Jesus of Nazareth based on his prayerful study of the four Gospels. Pope Benedict, with the publication of “Jesus of Nazareth,” gave direction to future Catholic biblical studies, utilizing the best in modern scriptural analysis, while always reading the biblical text through the eyes of faith.
I consider Pope Benedict’s greatest legacy to the church to be his clear teaching that our Catholic faith is not simply or primarily an intellectual assent to a set of propositions. At the beginning of his very first encyclical letter, “Deus Caritas Est” (“God is Love”), Pope Benedict wrote: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but an encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Pope Benedict certainly appreciated the importance of ideas, dogmas, catechisms and creeds. After all, he had spent his entire life articulating and protecting the doctrines of our Catholic faith. However, he did not believe that the essence of Catholicism was an intellectual understanding.
Pope Benedict also appreciated the profound importance of striving to live an ethical and moral life. However, once again he did not believe the foundation of our Catholic faith was living a virtuous life. A life of virtue is the fruit of Christian faith, not its heart.
The core of what it means to be a Catholic is an encounter with a living person, Jesus Christ. The heart of our Catholic faith is developing a friendship with Jesus that can only happen through the sacraments and a life of prayer. Such a friendship with Jesus can give us joy in the everyday events of life as well as serenity in the midst of adversity and difficulty. It can give us tranquility and an expectant joy even in the face of death.
Less than a year ago, Pope Benedict gave this description of his state of mind in approaching the reality of his impending death: “Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my Paraclete. In light of the hour of judgment, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death. In this regard, I am constantly reminded of what John tells us at the beginning of the Apocalypse: He sees the Son of Man in all his grandeur and fell at his feet as though dead. Yet he, placing his right hand on him, says to him: ‘Do not be afraid! It is I.’” (see Rev 1: 12-17).
The nurse, who attended Pope Benedict during his final hours, testifies that his last words were: “Lord, I love you.”
I give thanks for the incredible leadership of Pope Benedict XVI. I hope that someday he will be recognized and honored as a saint and doctor of the church. If we wish to honor Pope Benedict, then let us follow his example and pursue friendship with Jesus above all else.