May 18, 2012


Pope Benedict XVI: Great teacher, good steward

Last month, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated two important anniversaries—his 85th birthday on April 16, and the seventh anniversary of his election as the Bishop of Rome on April 19.

As always, the Holy Father observed these great occasions with quiet dignity and genuine human warmth. Throughout his many years of pastoral service, Pope Benedict has shown himself to be a great teacher and a good steward of the many gifts and responsibilities entrusted to his care.

Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was born on Holy Saturday in 1927 and baptized the same day. As the pope recalled in his birthday homily, “On the day I was born, thanks to my parents, I was also reborn with the water of the Spirit. The day I was baptized … was Easter Saturday. At the time, it was still customary to hold the Easter Vigil in the morning followed by the darkness of Easter Saturday without a Hallelujah.

“This singular paradox, this anticipation of light in a day of darkness, can almost be seen as an image of the history of our own times. On the one hand, there is the silence of God and his absence, yet the resurrection of Christ contains an anticipation of God’s ‘yes,” he said.

“We live in this anticipation, through the silence of God we hear his words and through the darkness of his absence we glimpse his light. The anticipation of the Resurrection in the midst of evolving history indicates the path we must follow and helps us to continue the journey.”

Pope Benedict’s journey through life has been a distinctive blend of gifts and responsibilities. The son of a policeman who was outspoken in his opposition to Hitler and the Nazis, the young Joseph Ratzinger was introverted, intellectual and deeply religious. He bitterly resented being forced to participate in Hitler’s war, and he ended up abandoning his post in the German army. Only the Allies’ victory and the subsequent breakdown of military power saved him from death, the customary fate of deserters.

Ordained a priest the same day as his older brother, Georg, he pursued a teaching career and participated in the Second Vatican Council as a “peritus” or adviser to the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich-Friezing. He became a strong advocate for change, but he insisted that all changes be in continuity with what the Church has always taught as opposed to a radical departure from traditional teaching and practice.

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, befriended the young German, and recognized him to be a great teacher and a good steward of his many gifts and talents.

In due time, the Polish pope called then-Cardinal Ratzinger to Rome to serve as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This new assignment forced the cardinal to leave his beloved homeland and to serve in a very difficult, but extremely important, position as the steward or guardian of orthodox teaching throughout the Universal Church.

As always, Cardinal Ratzinger worked hard and took his stewardship responsibilities seriously.

Fortunately, he did not take himself too seriously, but remained a gentle and humble servant of the Church’s faith. He continued to be a great teacher and pastor throughout his many years as a member of the Roman Curia and, in spite of false caricatures of him as the Grand Inquisitor or “God’s Rottweiler,” the Cardinal from Bavaria maintained his gentle smile and warm sense of humor.

After Pope John Paul II died, Cardinal Ratzinger was eager to retire, and return to Bavaria to read, write, walk and pray. It was not to be. The cardinal electors meeting in the papal conclave, prompted by the Holy Spirit, chose 78-year-old Joseph Ratzinger—an old man by his own reckoning—to serve as St. Peter’s successor and carry on the work which he helped begin many years earlier at the Second Vatican Council.

During his 85th birthday homily, the Holy Father said, “I am in the final stage of my life journey, and I do not know what awaits me. However, I do know that the light of God exists, that he rose again, that his light is stronger than all darkness, that the goodness of God is stronger than all the evil in this world. This helps me to continue with confidence. This helps us to continue, and I would like to thank everyone who, through their faith, continually makes me aware of God’s yes.”

All of us should thank God for the countless times that Joseph Ratzinger has said “yes” to God’s call. May he continue to be an exemplary teacher and pastor, and a good steward of all God’s gifts!

—Daniel Conway

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