My first interaction with Pope Benedict XVI occurred at the residence where I was living in Rome while working at the Vatican (office of the Secretariat of State).
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger came for lunch as a guest of one of my brother priests. I remembered how reserved he was, almost shy, as he answered questions put to him by those assembled.
Towards the end of the meal, there was a pause and then someone asked, “Your Eminence, did you ever play any sports?” The cardinal nodded and replied, “When I was in Munich, I used to downhill ski. But since coming to Rome, I have no one to go skiing with me.”
Every head at the table turned toward me. “Well, Father Nienstedt skis,” said a voice. The cardinal looked expectantly at me, so I offered, “Anytime you want to go, Eminence, I’d be happy to go with you.” But, you see, he never called, and I doubt he will now.
The influence that Pope Benedict XVI has had on my life as a priest and bishop is felt mainly through his writings. You can tell from his preaching and speaking that he is a natural-born teacher. He makes his points in a way that is clear and lucid. He has a firm grasp of the importance of one’s understanding of the faith as well as the challenges offered by our contemporary society that attempts to undermine that faith.
His first encyclical, God Is Love, should not have surprised anyone, but it did. His point, I believe, is this: Since God is love (rather than merely saying God loves), then everything we do involves love. Love then governs all relationships and, as such, cannot be measured or calculated. This then becomes both the motivation for and the challenge behind every baptized disciple’s call to love in Christ’s name.
The other point to make here is the fact that Pope Benedict gives priority in his ministry to his preaching and teaching. For bishops who can get caught up in the administration of their pastoral obligations, this is an important point to keep in mind.
The strength of episcopal ministry lies in the power of the Word i nfused as it is with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Pope Benedict believes in that power and he makes time to devote his energies to it.
For the Church at large, Pope Benedict has been very much a father figure in faith. Granted, he does not have the easy charisma of his predecessor, but he is still a solid reference point for Catholics and non-Catholics alike who are seeking for a moral compass. He does so with that same kind of reserve and serenity that I saw in him at our first meeting.
Editor’s note: Archbishop John Nienstedt is archbishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, founded in 1850 by Pope Pius IX.
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