Years ago, I accompanied James Cardinal Hickey, then the Archbishop of Washington, to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, where then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was to give a lecture. After his lecture and after fielding questions from his audience, Cardinal Ratzinger boarded a small plane that would take him and five other passengers to Washington where he would attend a dinner and then give another lecture. Even though he was suffering from a bad cold and the flight was quite turbulent, Cardinal Ratzinger remained calm and serene. He patiently responded to all our questions and comments during the flight and throughout the day.
At the end of a very long day I reflected on what I had witnessed. To be sure, then-Cardinal Ratzinger delivered two brilliant lectures and answered every question addressed to him thoroughly and respectfully. But what truly impressed me what his patience, kindness, and serenity. Simply put, I was impressed with his humanity and humility. These were the same qualities many other people observed as for years he walked across St. Peter’s Square on his way to his office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He never seemed too busy to stop and chat.
Our departing Pontiff is also a good listener. As a newly ordained bishop, I joined many other bishops for a meeting at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Ratzinger conducted the meeting. With great clarity, he introduced the question to be discussed and then asked our opinions. Each of us around the table commented. Cardinal Ratzinger then summarized our comments, weaving them into a coherent picture. All of us marveled at his gift for listening and synthesizing. I would witness this quality in him many times in future meetings.
In 2002, I was part of a small group of U.S. bishops who went to Rome to secure approval of the Essential Norms that were developed for the protection of children and young people in the United States. Without the critical support of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, I doubt if the Essential Norms would have been approved.
For the last eight years, Joseph Ratzinger has served the Church as our Holy Father. Following the long and charismatic pontificate of Blessed John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI brought his own gifts to the Petrine Office: his life of faith and prayer; his brilliance and mastery of theology and its sources; his linguistic abilities and broad knowledge of culture; his kindly spirit, his ability to listen, and his patience and serenity, even as he faced so many crises. In his own way, he connected with people. The Wednesday audiences at the Vatican were larger than ever. Young people at World Youth Days responded to him with great enthusiasm. And he tweeted. I was in the audience last December when Pope Benedict, surrounded by young people, sent out his first tweet. For him (@pontifex) the point was never to amass a personal following on Twitter, but rather to bring the Gospel where young people are today.
As a teacher of the Faith, he is second to none. Together with Blessed John Paul II, he engaged his papal office in advancing the New Evangelization, the fresh proclamation of the Person of Christ and His saving love, in our times. He has helped us see that Christ is not relegated to history books, but that He lives among us through His Word and the Sacraments. He has unearthed for us the richness and coherence of Scripture, understood as a unified whole, and he has re-introduced us to the voice of Tradition that equips us to reflect on the challenges of our lives and our times more deeply. With his mastery of theological sources, he never made himself the master of the Faith but rather its servant. He grappled with doctrinal and theological problems without playing the role of the caustic critic. In a world that is often utilitarian and sometimes even ugly, he has taught us to appreciate the truth, beauty, and power of the Church’s life of sacramental worship.
Sometimes he is faulted for advancing the notion that there is such a thing as truth, discoverable by reason and set in sharper relief by the light of faith. The truth is not always welcome in our relativistic age. In his wisdom, Benedict reminds us that if there is no such thing as truth, especially the truth about the dignity of the human person, then all our rights and freedoms are ultimately endangered.
As the Holy Father enters upon a period of intense prayer, let us thank the Good Shepherd for Pope Benedict’s exercise of the Papacy and let us keep him in our prayers, even as we ask the Holy Spirit to overshadow and inspire the Cardinals as they prepare to elect a successor to this good and worthy Pope.