The media are declaring Pope Benedict XVI a failure because he leaves behind an imperfect world. The West was not re-converted to Christianity during his eight-year pontificate, you see, and he has not halted the re-definition of marriage and, well, some people just disagree with him. So he’s a failure.
The people who are saying this were never listening to him. He said all along that his pontificate would be brief, that it would mainly continue and deepen the work of Blessed Pope John Paul II (which was also his—Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict’s—work) and that the Holy Spirit usually shapes history through intense minorities, not mass movements.
For whatever it’s worth (and it’s worth eternity, in case you don’t know) Pope Benedict was very much a success in my life, in what he saw as his central mission: helping others deepen their encounter with Jesus Christ.
When I think of Pope Benedict, I think first of the one time I saw him in person: Yankee Stadium in 2008. My wife Leslie, our two oldest kids and I were all straining to hear his every word. “People came to see John Paul, they come to hear Pope Benedict” goes the saying. It was true. And when he made even a passing a reference to defending the unborn, the stadium exploded with cheers.
I remember the first time someone recommended the future Pope to me. While honeymooning in Nova Scotia in 1997, Leslie and I discovered an excellent Catholic Book Store in Halifax. The elderly proprietor was a gentle, smiling fellow. “That’s how I picture you as an old man” my new bride whispered. Intrigued, I began picking his brain. “What theologians do you read?” I asked him. He suddenly became very intense. “Ratzinger” he said. “Von Balthasar, Guardini, they’re all good. But you must. read. Ratzinger.” And I did.
I read in Ratzinger’s Memoirs of his youthful distaste for the Nazis and his later dislike of 1960’s-era radicalism. I remember one line of his in particular—that a classical education trains the mind to resist ideology—and how I wished he had written an entire book on that one line.
I remember Salt of the Earth, his late ‘90’s book-length interview on the state of the Church, and how key it was in knowing what to expect from his papacy. Already in the 1960’s, and again in Salt of the Earth, and again in an EWTN interview with Raymond Arroyo just a few years prior to his election, Ratzinger/Benedict was telling us that the Church was being pruned, that it would lose its former cultural status and that, paradoxically, a world grown cold will be more likely to consider the joyful minority that will be such a contrast to it.
Ratzinger’s detailed analysis of the Church’s future gave form to John Paul II’s powerful-but-vague vision of a "New Springtime" of faith. And in Ratzinger’s case the analysis was as much a warning as it was a hope, leaving us better prepared for the dark days of the early 21st century.
It is Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Litugy, above all, that had the greatest influence on me. After reading it, I could never approach the mass or my own prayer life the same way again. It was because of that book that I was a parishioner at the Shrine of St. Anne in Waterbury, attending its beautiful high mass, for most of Benedict’s pontificate, 2005-2012. And when St. Anne’s liturgy changed, I was overjoyed to find an even-more “Spirit of the Liturgy” mass at Waterbury’s St. Margaret of Scotland Church under Fr. Robert Villa.
I remember, right after 9/11, Rod Dreher asking in Crisis Magazine whether a Church that feeds its flock on such banalities as “Gift of Finest Wheat” is ready for the coming war. I cannot speak for the parishes that still think it’s 1972, that think being with the times means guitars and Marty Haugen tunes and folk music that is about forty years out of date. But I will note that even those parishes must now use the new, more faithful translation of the mass. And I will say that in those parishes that embrace Pope Benedict’s Spirit of the Liturgy, we are receiving the spiritual nourishment we need to meet the increasingly acute challenges of the new century. I might not have the strength to be the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut (or the father of six) if I attended those other parishes. But I come out of the beautiful, reverent, faithful mass at St. Margaret’s knowing “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”
I remember the day Pope Benedict was elected. My former boss Brian Brown, our co-worker Larry Taffner and I were hunched over my laptop at Family Institute of Connecticut’s office, watching EWTN’s live feed from Rome. A cardinal came out on the balcony and began making the announcement in Italian. “Did he just say Joseph?” I asked. More Italian. I must have imagined it. It was too good to be true. Then, after still more Italian: “Ratzinger!” And there he was. The three of us cheered as if our team had just won the Superbowl. I have had many happy days in that office. That was one of my happiest.
I remember loving Benedict’s first two encyclicals and how they transcended politics. The first one made the centrality of love, of Jesus Christ as God’s incarnate love, the foundation of his pontificate. The second one reminded us that our hope is not in this world, that Christ is our hope. With these encyclicals—and his apostolic letter on scripture—he was calling the world back to first principles, some of which the world still shared. If the world no longer remembered where those principles first originated, Benedict was happy to remind them.
I remember being thrown by his third encyclical, Charity in Truth, which revived Pope John XXIII’s call for a “true world political authority” that would manage the world’s economy and, in Benedict’s words, “have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions.” There are many noble hopes for human solidarity in that encyclical that would immediately fall victim to such an authority, were it ever established. Paragraph 67 of Charity in Truth is the only time I ever disagreed with the present Pope.
I remember the “Year of St. Paul” in 2008, sitting on the beach reading Paul of Tarsus by Joseph Holzner, an obscure book from the 1940’s that ignited my admiration for the Apostle to the Gentiles. I never would have read that book—or developed a far deeper appreciation for St. Paul and evangelization—if not for that “Year”.
I remember the “Year of the Priest” in 2010 and wondering if the Devil himself was attempting to derail it. I tried to get into the spirit by reading Troche’s Cure D’Ars. But, oddly, it was the bad news that year that seemed to help me focus. During Holy Week, 2010 the New York Times suddenly decided that Pope Benedict was responsible for clergy sex abuse. How much Benedict reminded me of Pope Pius XII that year: the one person at a very high level combating a great evil, only to be blamed for that very evil.
Aside from his trip to the United States, it is Pope Benedict’s 2011 trip to Germany, his meeting with that country's Lutherans, I remember the most. As the head of an ecumenical pro-family alliance in Connecticut, I especially identified with Pope Benedict’s warm relationship with Protestants. I nodded in agreement with Mark Brumley’s report of that meeting in Catholic World Report, and I identified with Brumley’s description of Catholics “who are dissatisfied with a spiritual cold war among western Christians or who don’t need to refight the battles of the 16th century in order confidently and placidly to affirm their Catholic faith.”
I remember Pope Benedict’s books on Jesus—the first two, anyway (I’m just beginning the third). I remember his fascinating description of Satan tempting Christ in the desert as “two scripture scholars” locked in combat. I remember his penetrating analysis of the Sermon of the Mount, especially the revolutionary nature of Matthew 5:2 (“he opened his mouth and taught them”), what it says about Christ’s true identity. To this day, whenever I meditate on the Third Luminous Mystery of the Rosary, the Proclamation of the Kingdom, I think of that verse and of Pope Benedict’s description of it.
And now I will remember the “Year of Faith”, the year Pope Benedict gave up the papacy and retired to a life of prayer, hidden from the world. And I will do my part for the New Evangelization that the “Year of Faith” sought to re-ignite, confident that Ratzinger/Benedict’s prayers are aiding our efforts.
Blessed Pope John Paul II was the Pope of my youth (literally, if we use the strange World Youth Day definition of youth: he reigned from the time I was eight until I was thirty-five.) He was the perfect Pope for it. Full of energy; larger than life; focused on the young; leading us out of the confusions that trouble us at that age, most especially—for those of us who grew up after the 1960’s—the confusion that surrounds love, sex and marriage.
Pope Benedict was the Pope of my early middle age, reigning from the time I was thirty-five until now, when I am forty-three. And he is the perfect Pope for it: reserved, quiet, gentle, focused on eternity, pointing us toward our final destination. He is a thoughtful, serious man who leaves behind a more thoughtful, more serious Church.
He has been a big part of my spiritual life these last eight years and I shall miss him very much.
Peter Wolfgang is the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut.