The momentous occasions of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s election to the See of Peter twelve years ago today – April 19, 2005 - and his courageous resignation from that office on February 11, 2013 – stand as landmark moments in the life of the Catholic Church and in the life of the world. Pope Benedict was pigeonholed from the beginning as the “conservative” pope. For eight years on the chair of Peter, he turned to Scripture far more than doctrine, making connections between the early Christians and people of our time struggling to live their faith. He tackled contemporary social and political issues by emphasizing a few main principles: that human rights rest on human dignity, that people come before profits, that the right to life is an ancient measure of humanity and not just a Catholic teaching, and that efforts to exclude God from civil affairs are corroding modern society. For Benedict, Christianity is an encounter with beauty, the possibility of a more authentic, more exciting life. His mantra was about friendship with Jesus and with God.
Benedict set the stage for the age of the New Evangelization by focusing in on three basics. His first three encyclicals examined the three cardinal virtues: Faith, Hope and Love. His first three books focused on the center of the Catholic Faith: Jesus Christ. This great teaching pope lectured every Wednesday on issues like the catechesis, the Fathers of the Church, the Saints, the Doctors of the Church, the Psalms and prayer. In October 2013, he held a synod on the New Evangelization and in his opening speech declared "The Church exists to evangelize!"
Pope Benedict brilliantly emphasized the need for intense theological life, constant prayer and quiet contemplation which would naturally give way to good moral living, a commitment to others, and a life of charity and justice.
As I look back over the eight years of his Petrine Ministry, I am grateful for the special moments I spent in his presence. I met Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and later Pope Benedict XVI many times. I was with him in Rome, Germany, Australia, the United States and Spain on his unforgettable papal pastoral visits. I served as the English language media attaché at two Synods of Bishops – 2008 and 2012 – where we had the privilege of being with Benedict for days on end in the Synod Hall in Rome.
When I was with Pope Benedict in Cologne for his first World Youth Day in August 2005, he exclaimed to the throngs of young Christians and the curious mixed in: "The Church can be criticized, because it contains both grain and weeds, but it is actually consoling to realize that there are weeds in the Church. In this way, despite all our defects, we can still hope to be counted among the disciples of Jesus, who came to call sinners."
If any pope dealt with the weeds among the wheat during his pontificate, it was Benedict XVI. He called sin and evil by their right names, and invited people to become friends with Jesus Christ. He faced head-on scandals and was unafraid to speak about them; he admitted errors made under his watch; he reached out to schismatics and experienced rejection of his efforts for unity; he extended peace branches to the great religions of the world unafraid to name the things that divide us and also the great hopes that unite us. He walked among kings and princes but never lost the common touch.
On this date of April 19 – the anniversary of his election to the See of Peter – let us give thanks to God for this “humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.” Many feel that in order to highlight the positive aspects of the “Franciscan” era we now experience, they must describe in negative terms the pontificate of Pope Benedict. That is not only absurd, but it is also indicates blindness, deafness and ignorance to what this great man accomplished. Comparisons between Francis and his predecessor are inevitable, and it’s no secret that Pope Francis is more appealing to the crowds… the huge masses that continue to throng the Vatican to catch glimpse of the first Pope from the New World. There is a shift in tone under Francis in what could be described as a "moderate" or “pastoral” direction and a real concern for those on the peripheries of society and the Church.
Let us not forget that many of the reforms now underway under Pope Francis’ leadership actually began on Benedict's watch, especially in two chronic sources of scandal for the church: money and sex abuse. I am convinced that if today we are basking in Pope Francis’ light, we must forever be grateful to Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI who has made Francis possible for the Church and the world. We owe Benedict immense gratitude.
Having had the privilege of serving as one of the spokespersons for the Vatican during the momentous papal transition of 2013, I witnessed everything up close, and emotions were very high at various moments. One of the most touching moments of that Roman experience took place on February 28, the last day of Benedict’s pontificate. His carefully orchestrated departure from the Apostolic Palace and the Vatican captured the heart and mind of the world. The touching farewell from his co-workers on that crisp, Italian afternoon, the brief helicopter flight to Castel Gandolfo, his final words as Pope, reminding us that he would become “a pilgrim” in this final stage of his life, moved the world. There were no dry eyes in Rome that evening. I was sad to witness this incredible leave-taking. I grieved because I knew deep down inside that this great Church leader, teacher, a real “doctor” of the faith had been very poorly served by some of his closest collaborators during his papacy.
St. John Paul II taught us the profound lesson of suffering and death with dignity. Joseph Ratzinger taught us the meaning of sweet surrender- of not clinging to power and the throne, of prestige, tradition and privilege for their own sakes. Pope Benedict taught us what it means to serve the Lord with gladness, humility and joy. He was for us, Joseph, our brother - the one that many refused to accept in the beginning, but in the end, recognized and embraced as a beloved brother.
During my German language studies in Pope Benedict’s Bavarian homeland, I learned the wonderful expression “Vergelt’s Gott!” It is much more than a mere “Danke” or “thanks” but really means, “May God repay you or reward you!” As I look back over his Petrine Ministry and conscious of his frail frame and ever joyful demeanor as he celebrated 90 years on April 16, I say,“Vergelt’s Gott, Heiliger Vater!” The Church and the world will never be the same because of what you have done for us!