I join the rest of the world today in complete disbelief about the news I heard the minute after my alarm radio went off: Pope Benedict plans to resign. As the historians assess his legacy, I’m reflecting on the blessing of a few encounters with the man who benefited from the love his predecessor garnered for the papacy, but who attracted an affection all his own.
Humility is what I think of when I think of Pope Benedict. I shook his hand once (and then awkwardkly tried to kiss his ring, as is the custom), as he walked down the aisle of the Vatican’s Hall of Pope Paul VI during a regular Wednesday audience. Like everyone else who gets asile seats, I got there two hours early and rushed for the chairs when the doors opened.
What struck me as Pope Benedict made his way to the front of the hall was everyone’s enthusiasm — 50-year-old men losing all sense of decorum as they stretched their hands out, hoping they will grasped, and the quiet awe of others, who wanted deeply to convey their respect. (The photo above is my pittiful effort to capture the atmosphere.)
As as people shouted, cheered, sobbed, Pope Benedict XVI walked with his head down slightly, as if all this attention was a little bit much.
A few years later, I was back in Rome with my parents, and we happend to be in the right place at the right time, the Popemobile whizzing past us and not many others, long enough to really see Pope Benedict and wonder if we really did make eye contact. My parents were thrilled, and I still relish that moment, remembering their faces.
Every Catholic who has the chance seems to treasure that “private” moment with the pope, a personal memory of a singlar encounter with a saint-in-the-making. I lived in Rome during the papacy of John Paul II, and I have friends who heard then-Cardinal Ratzinger preach in English at the Lent pilgrimage churches. They said he was so approachable, so kind.
And then of course, he is also brilliant. What a beautiful example, this marriage of incredible gifts, but the humility that knows they are only in service of God. Thank you, Pope Benedict, for the gift of these eight years.