I first encountered Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in 1974 when I was a graduate student at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in Southern Indiana.
I was preparing to write my master’s thesis in systematic theology and reading some really “heavy” theologians. When I first began reading Introduction to Christianity, I discovered that Ratzinger was an exception. Unlike the others I was reading, he was not only profound and insightful; his book was well written (even in translation from the original German) and inspirational, and his teaching was clear as crystal.
This first encounter with Joseph Ratzinger changed me. It taught me that serious reflection on God’s Word does not have to be obscure or remote or impenetrable. It can be communicated in simple, straightforward language that is accessible to everyone.
I continued to read Ratzinger over the years — even when I got very busy raising five children and working to help Catholic organizations carry out the church’s mission. I was intrigued when Blessed John Paul II brought the shy scholar from Bavaria to Rome to lead the Vatican Congregation responsible for preserving Catholic teaching from error. And I refused to believe the media reports (including those from Catholic media) that portrayed him as “God’s Rottweiler.” Anyone who read what Joseph Ratzinger has written would know that this is a gentle and humble man — certainly not a “grand inquisitor.”
In fact, in the 1980s I began working on a fantasy piece (it would have been a short story) that was never finished. My idea was to use the basic structure of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s story in The Brothers’ Karamazov about the Grand Inquisitor interrogating Jesus and finding him wanting — reversing the roles so that a Marxist revolutionary in South America interrogates the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in an unsuccessful effort to expose him as inauthentic and unchristian. It was a nice idea, but I couldn’t handle it. My skills as a writer — and a theologian — were unequal to the task.
Looking back, I see that I was convinced then that Cardinal Ratzinger was much more like Jesus than he was like anyone else. He was certainly not what his critics accused him of being. What was true in the 1980s is even truer in 2013.
As much as I admired Cardinal Ratzinger, I was surprised when the cardinal electors chose him to succeed Blessed John Paul II. Ratzinger as pope? It seemed incredible. Blessed John Paul set the bar incredibly high even in his declining years. The introverted scholar who advised the charismatic pope, and who was so controversial (rightly or wrongly), seemed to me to be an unlikely choice. Besides, it was no secret that the then 78-year-old cardinal was eager to retire to Bavaria and complete his work as a theologian.
“What possessed the Cardinals to choose him?” I said out loud when I first heard the news. My oldest daughter, who was 25 at the time, answered me. “It was the Holy Spirit.”
It sure was. The Holy Spirit chose the best possible man to succeed Blessed John Paul II. During the past eight years, he has continued to be the crystal clear teacher I first encountered nearly 40 years ago. He has also been transparent as a man of prayer and a man who knows firsthand the joy that can only come from being close to Christ.
I remember sitting in the Pope Paul VI audience hall on a bitter cold February morning not quite a year after Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. We were waiting for his regular Wednesday audience to begin. We could see the pope on the large video screens in the audience hall. He was next door — in St. Peter’s Basilica — at the conclusion of some ceremony. As he moved toward the doors to come to the audience hall and meet with us, he smiled and shook hands with hundreds of people. As I watched this amazing sight, it dawned on me: This does not come naturally to Benedict, the severe introvert, the way it did to John Paul, the extraordinary extrovert. He has to work at this. And it doesn’t come easy. But he does it anyway — out of love for Christ.
Pope Benedict XVI gave the petrine ministry everything he had. Then he ran out of energy and began to lose his physical strength. So, with the help of the Holy Spirit in prayer, he has resigned “for the good of the church.”
But he’s not quitting. As a good steward of the Good News, he will retire to a monastery to pray and, I hope, to continue his crystal clear teaching. Ad multos annos.
Record Editorial Board member