Many around the Catholic blogsphere (Amy Welborn, Mark Shea, Catholic Ragemonkey, for example) have noted that this week marks the first anniversary of the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s elevation to the Chair of Peter and his taking the name Benedict XVI. I remember watching television as the networks interrupted regular programming to announce that a new pope had been elected. The news people reported that there were groups of people in St. Peter’s square waving various national flags and hoping somebody from their country had been chosen. When it was announced that Cardinal Ratzinger, a German, had been selected and had chosen the name Benedict XVI, the Italians, far from being disappointed, obligingly began chanting “Benedetto! Benedetto! Benedetto!” Love for the pope apparently trumped national pride.
The death of Pope John Paul II was a particularly difficult time for me because it followed hard on the heels of my own father’s death less than two months before. I had just lost my earthly or natural father. Suddenly I felt I was losing a spiritual father, too. As if that weren’t bad enough, I was already having a crisis of faith because of unanswered questions about Scripture, serious health problems of my own, and the end of a precious personal relationship. Everything that was once so clear now seemed uncertain. I felt lost, alone, worthless. Where was God?
Yet the homily that Pope Benedict delivered at his installation Mass (in which he received the pallium and fisherman’s ring, two symbols of the pope’s office) was an enormous comfort to me. In it, Benedict spoke candidly about his own feelings of loss and loneliness after the death of John Paul and his anxiety at being called to the awesome responsibility of leading the Church. Yet of John Paul he said this:
He crossed the threshold of the next life, entering into the mystery of God. But he did not take this step alone. Those who believe are never alone–neither in life nor in death. At that moment, we could call upon the Saints from every age–his friends, his brothers and sisters in the faith–knowing that they would form a living procession to accompany him into the next world, into the glory of God. We knew that his arrival was awaited. Now we know that he is among his own and is truly at home.
When I read those words, I knew they were true not only of John Paul but of my Dad as well. Yet Benedict went on to say:
I too can say with renewed conviction: I am not alone. I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone. All the Saints of God are there to protect me, to sustain me and to carry me. And your prayers, my dear friends, your indulgence, your love, your faith and your hope accompany me. Indeed, the communion of Saints consists not only of the great men and women who went before us and whose names we know. All of us belong to the communion of Saints, we who have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we who draw life from the gift of Christ’s Body and Blood, through which he transforms us and makes us like himself.
Did I dare hope that those words were true for me too? I felt lost, alone, and worthless. Yet the Holy Father reminded me that I did not have to feel this way:
The human race–every one of us–is the sheep lost in the desert which no longer knows the way. The Son of God will not let this happen; he cannot abandon humanity in so wretched a condition. He leaps to his feet and abandons the glory of heaven, in order to go in search of the sheep and pursue it, all the way to the Cross. He takes it upon his shoulders and carries our humanity; he carries us all––he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. What the Pallium indicates first and foremost is that we are all carried by Christ.
We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.
The pope continued:
At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!”
I was feeling afraid of God at this point. If I trusted Him, what else was he going to zap me with? Again, the pope spoke:
Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ––and you will find true life. Amen.
Amen and Amen! This homily helped restore my faith in a loving God. Indeed, it had so many passages that spoke so directly to my situation at the time, I’ll swear it could have been written for me. Thank you, Holy Father.
Before Cardinal Ratzinger was elected, his critics dubbed him “Der PanzerKardinal” or “God’s Rottweiler” because he was head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the agency responsible for defining and maintaining correct Catholic doctrine. He had a reputation, largely defined by his critics, as a fierce, narrow-minded opponent of anything remotely perceived as heresy or heterodoxy. Yet these are not the words of a narrow-minded uncharitable zealot. In fact, Pope Benedict surprised his critics by focusing his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” (God Is Love) on the importance of charity in the Christian life. Pundits have remarked on Benedict’s reserved, scholarly, quiet and unassuming manner, very much in contrast to John Paul II, with his actor’s flair for the grand dramatic gesture.
Catholics are encouraged to think of the pope as a father figure, of course, but it occurs to me that a better metaphor might be a grandfather. Now that I’ve had a year to get to know Benedict, I can see some of the differences between him and his predecessor. John Paul was the grandfather who comes with hugs and jokes and presents, naturally warm and expressive. You know he loves you because he shows it so openly and easily. Benedict, perhaps, is like your other grandfather, who is quiet and not really comfortable with public displays of affection. Yet when no one is looking, he might slip you a shy smile or place a gentle hand on your shoulder. Because you know he’s not likely to do anything extravagant, that small, simple gesture really means a lot. You know he loves you just as much as your other grandpa does, but he merely shows it differently. Your two grandfathers are two different men with two different styles, but you are grateful to God for both of them. Ad multos annos!