Bishop Robert Baker is bishop of the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama.
The Roman Catholic community throughout the world reveres the pope under various titles besides that of our “Holy Father.” He is the Vicar of Jesus Christ, the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of St. Peter.
He also holds the distinction of being the chief teacher of the faith and pastor of the universal Church. Pope Benedict XVI has exemplified these two roles well in the first five years of his papacy.
Pope Benedict speaks to the classroom of the world from his chair as the pre-eminent teacher; and he does so in a magnificent way, capitalizing on his many years as a university professor of theology.
In 1983 he was tapped by Pope John Paul II to oversee the congregation now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In overseeing this important doctrinal Congregation of the Vatican, he held special responsibility in assisting Pope John Paul II in clarifying the teachings of the Church and preserving the Catholic tradition of orthodoxy and pastoral practice — no small task!
Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals Fides et Ratio (On the Relation of Faith and Reason), Veritatis Splendor (On the Moral Teachings of the Church) and Evangelium Vitae (On Human Life) bore Cardinal Ratzinger’s influence.
My first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI occurred in the papacy of Pope John Paul II on an ad limina visit with Region XIV of the United States bishops (2004) while I was bishop of Charleston, S.C.
Cardinal Ratzinger greeted our bishops most cordially as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. We were able to have a free and open interchange with him that centered heavily on the clergy sexual-abuse crisis in the U.S.
Cardinal Ratzinger was most attentive to the experience of the American Church.
Pope Benedict’s critics of his response to the sexual-abuse crisis have little understanding of his concerns early on to bring the full force of the papacy to bear directly on this major crisis, in an effort to garner a massive effort to protect children. His choice of Cardinal Levada is evidence of his approbation of the strong stance taken by the American hierarchy in its zero-tolerance approach. His critics are off the mark in the interpretation of his pastoral leadership in this matter.
Pope Benedict has lived out his role as pastor of the universal Church not only in addressing the sexual- abuse crisis, but in pastoral visits to different countries throughout the world, as he did to the United States in 2008.
As teacher, early on, he released the encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) in an effort to launch his papacy around the central theme of charity. He reinforced it with a later encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, that furthers his reflection on charity’s role in the Christian life and its relation to truth. The virtue of hope was the subject of the Pope’s encyclical Spe Salvi. And a post-synodal document on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis, focuses Pope Benedict’s Eucharistic theology around the central theme of the Eucharist as the “Sacrament of Charity.”
By setting aside two recent years of his papacy as “The Year of St. Paul” and “The Year for Priests,” the Pope has enabled the universal Church to reflect profoundly with him on Pauline theology and on the priesthood.
What I also find most uplifting are his weekly Wednesday audience addresses. Pope Benedict has given the Church mountains of profound meditations on the apostles, the Fathers of the Church, and insights into theological traditions that have influenced the mind and heart of the Church. He relates the issues in ways that can be understood by the laity. His recent reflections on the theologies of St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure are classic examples of how the Pope helps the Catholic faithful relate to theologians of the past.
Like St. Bonaventure, Pope Benedict emphasizes the role of the heart in discovering God. In his classic study of the life of Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, the Pope says that “the organ for seeing God is the heart. The intellect alone is not enough” (p. 92). This comment occurs in his commentary on the beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
We can say that this pope radiates to those who meet him that pureness of heart that enables him to see God and relate to the God he has come to know well through prayer, years of theological study and pastoral experience. He has tried to lead with the heart!
Thank you, Pope Benedict XVI, for teaching and shepherding your Church so well these past five years!
About This Series
Now more than ever, we need to be reminded of what a Pope is. On the rock of Peter our Church is built. To him and his successors — Christ’s vicars — have been entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. Christ prayed for him that his faith might not fail, that he might strengthen his brethren.
The untold story right now in the media is how much God has worked through Pope Benedict XVI in his first five years as Pope. That’s why we began to commission short essays to honor him for his anniversary just a few weeks ago.
As the media tries in vain to pin the lion’s share of the blame for the developing abuse scandal on him, those essays are now taking on a meaning and depth we couldn’t have imagined. We’re fortunate to have this man leading us, and these tributes tell why.
We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.
— The Editors