In Memoriam: Pope Benedict XVI (2022)

Pope Benedict XVI in Saint Peter's square (2007)
Pope Benedict in Saint Peter’s square (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday, sometime around 9 am CET, our pope emeritus, Pope Benedict XVI, was called home to his eternal reward. At 95 and after years of faithful service, he has earned his rest – but we here on earth are poorer for his passing. As many have remarked, he is the last of a generation, bridging the gap between the pre and post conciliar Church with fidelity, wisdom, and grace. Though his contributions will continue to bear fruit in the Body of Christ on earth – and we will undoubtedly benefit from his intercession in union with the saints & angels in heaven – we are nonetheless poorer for his passing. He will be deeply missed.

Cardinal Marini venerates the casket of Pope John Paul II (2005)
Cardinal Marini venerating Pope John Paul II’s casket
(image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I was born under the papacy of Pope Saint John Paul II. He led the Church for so long that it seemed like he had always been and always would be around. When he died in 2005, the world shook – and me with it. Universally beloved, it seemed impossible that such a force for joyful faith could be gone. At Mundelein seminary at the time, as students and faculty alike immediately gathered together to offer Mass, praying as one. Catholics – and non-Catholics! – were united across ecclesial divisions in a common purpose: to thank God for and intercede on behalf of a beloved man who so wonderfully lived his first papal message of ‘be not afraid!’

Leading us all in our grief and our prayer was then-Cardinal Ratzinger. It made perfect sense, not only because of his prominence in the Church (having served as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1981) but because of his deep personal friendship with Pope Saint John Paul II. In addition to carrying his own grief at the loss of his friend, Cardinal Ratzinger stood before the world and led us through that sad goodbye. His homily was an inspiration, but it was his presence that made all the difference. Though he had been known as a staunch proponent of the faith – often compared to a bulldog by fans & critics alike – that day his fatherly heart was revealed.

So it was no surprise that when the conclave gathered for the prayerful discernment and selection of a new pope, he was tapped by his brother cardinals to succeed his friend after just one day of deliberations. On April 19, 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. I remember the announcement well, with many of my classmates gathered around the television in the rec hall beneath the chapel – a chapel, by the way, where the community Mass was being offered. I’m told that our cheering disrupted the Mass such that the rector simply paused his prayers, remarking that ‘I guess we have a new pope!’ and patiently waiting for the name to be shared with him – which he included in Eucharistic prayer of the Mass we had interrupted.

Pope Benedict XVI will always hold a special place in my heart. His faithful teaching – especially around the liturgy & worship of our Lord – continues to inform my practice of the faith and the work of my priesthood. He was a gift to the Church and we have been blessed by his generous lifetime of ministry. Thankful for all that he did and who he was, we commend him to the Lord, whom he served with such care.

Saints of God come to his aid!
Hasten to meet him, angels of the Lord!

R. Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High.
May Christ, who called you, take you to himself;
may angels lead you to the bosom of Abraham.
R. Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,
and let perpetual line shine upon him.
R. Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High.

(during the Novemdiales – the traditional nine days of mourning at the death of a pope – consider joining in the Office for the Dead, which can be prayed at any time)

Further reading you may find edifying:

Sitting with Jeremiah & Jonah

Sometimes people ask me what I think is the hardest part of priesthood. In this season of my ministry, the answer is easy: the hardest thing for me as a priest is to know the path forward and watch people ignore it, avoid it, or otherwise refuse to walk in the way God invites them. I imagine parents have a similar heartache – how painful it must be to watch their children make decisions they know will only come to regret later on! And therein lies the rub of genuine love – it honors free will even when that will is oriented towards something harmful or dangerous.

In moments like this, I am reminded of one of my favorite Old Testament figures: the prophet Jeremiah. His role in the history of God’s people is unenviable – to say the least! He was called to proclaim that Jerusalem would be destroyed, the nation of Judah would suffer greatly, and eventually, that they would all be made captives in a land not their own. All of this was due to Israel’s great sin in forsaking God and worshipping Baal, even to the point of sacrificing their own children.

As you might imagine, Jeremiah was not exactly the life of the party nor welcomed pretty much anywhere. Not only was he tasked with the responsibility of proclaiming his own people’s downfall and calling them to repentance, but they in turn shunned him, even to the point of exiling him or outright plotting to kill him on more than one occasion. Jeremiah never gave up on his people, even when it meant sharing in the sorrows of their punishment, continuing to try to turn them back to the Lord.

The other prophet with whom I relate well is Jonah. He’s a little more well-known, particularly for his time in the whale after he tried to escape God and His instruction to go to Nineveh to call them to repentance. The people of Nineveh – unlike those to whom Jeremiah preached – responded. Not only that, they responded quickly and wholeheartedly. Jonah was only one day into the city when the entire city, from king to commoner, covered themselves in sackcloth and beseeched the Lord for mercy – which He granted them.

What people often overlook in this story is what comes next: the uncovering of Jonah’s heart. Rather than rejoicing with Nineveh at their conversion and God’s graciousness towards them, he is ticked; he didn’t want the Ninevites to be forgiven! He goes out of the city to sulk. Only after a rather miraculous – and convicting – interaction between him and the Lord does the lesson of God’s love begin to sink in.

The tension between the vindictiveness of Jonah and the faithfulness of Jeremiah is stark. To be sure, Jonah grew in fidelity and kindness and I’ve no doubt that Jeremiah was tempted to despair & anger. Still, when it comes to who I want to model myself after, Jeremiah wins hands down every time.

And yet, I sympathize so much with Jonah’s frustration & anger – or more accurately, I often share in it. Whether it is in the sentiment of ‘what’s the point?’ (that God is going to be gracious no matter my efforts) or a darker ‘I want to see someone get theirs!’, I see more clearly the temptation to enter into the same self-righteousness – and self-pity – that drove Jonah to first run from the Lord and then go off and sulk when the Lord didn’t live up to his hopes for some divine smiting.

Years ago a then-new priest shared with me that he often found particular inspiration for preaching in the first reading at Mass. This surprised him, because he understood himself and his priesthood to be ordered towards Christ. Surely the Old Testament would take lower priority than the Gospel!? And yet, there he was, preaching on the Old Testament – and finding (and sharing!) greater understanding of Jesus in the process.

It seems to me that God’s self-revelation to His people – and their relationship with Him – in Old Testament often gets short shrift from Christians….forgetting that Jesus Himself was formed by the Old Testament, constantly quoted it, and used it to bring people closer to Him and His Father.

As an imperfect, often struggling Christians, sitting with all of those who have gone before us in faith is a gift we ought not deny ourselves. We may unexpectedly find brothers & sisters who have shared in our hardships and difficulties – and who can model for us how we they might be overcome by and with the Lord.