YONKERS, N.Y. — Father Michael Morris was “excited and privileged” during the visit of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., when he was a third-year student there in 1988.
“We seminarians loved him for a number of reasons,” Father Morris recalled. “He was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. We read his book Introduction to Christianity in class; it was the first theology book we used. At Dunwoodie, we were used to having cardinals visit, but Cardinal Ratzinger was special.”
Now a professor of Church history at the seminary, known as Dunwoodie, Father Morris is preparing with the rest of the faculty members and seminarians to welcome the same guest, who is now Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict is scheduled to arrive at the spacious seminary grounds on April 19 for a rally with young people and a meeting with disabled persons.
“This is a great honor for the seminary,” Father Morris said. “The fact that we had Pope John Paul II visit in 1995 and now Benedict XVI — I think it speaks volumes about the good work the seminary is doing in preparing young men for the priesthood, just as it says a lot about the good work of the Archdiocese of New York.”
During his years as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger was no stranger to the United States, visiting at least five times. In 1984, in Dallas, he address the bishops of the Americas, and four years later was in New York City to deliver the annual Erasmus Lecture for the Institute on Religion and Public Life, run by Father Richard Neuhaus. During that visit, he went to Dunwoodie to celebrate Mass in the seminary chapel and give a talk on the interpretation of sacred Scripture.
He also traveled to the nation’s capital in 1990 to give a talk at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, and a year later he spoke again at a bishops’ workshop in Dallas on “Conscience and Truth.”
Most recently, in 1999, he went to Archdiocese of San Francisco, then headed by Archbishop William Levada, who is now the cardinal in charge of the Doctrine of the Faith congregation. There he attended a meeting of Vatican officials and officials from bishops’ conferences of North America and Oceania, gave an address at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, and visited Ignatius Press, which was founded by his former student Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, who has published many of Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings.
Getting to Know Him
As Pope Benedict, he comes now to the United States for the first time as the chief shepherd of the universal Church. The Register asked some of those who met him on his previous visits to share their memories and reflect on his new role. Each person interviewed stressed that, as Pope, Benedict remains the humble, reserved and intellectually honest man he has always been.
“I have been meeting him usually once a year, and I’ve always found him extremely well informed about the Church in the United States,” said Father Fessio. “The times I had met with him privately, I would bring up two or three issues and I don’t recall that he didn’t already know about them.”
Father Fessio said that Americans in general and the media in particular have more to learn about Pope Benedict, who as head of the Vatican congregation was typecast as a stern German cleric cracking down on dissent. He recalled that “two days after he was elected pope, people were saying that he had changed. I would say: ‘He hasn’t changed, you just found out who he is. What you see in him now is the person he has always been.’”
Msgr. William Smith was professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in 1988 when the future Pope visited.
“He was very well received,” said Msgr. Smith, still a professor at Dunwoodie. “He gave a very good talk on biblical exegesis, the points of which were brought out in his recent book Jesus of Nazareth. In it, he accepts the historical-critical method but points out its limits.”
Many who met him at the seminary were struck by “his gentle and retiring manner” during the lecture, Msgr. Smith recalled. “He says his piece, gives his reasons and listens.”
Father Neuhaus, editor of the journal First Things, said that he had met and spoken to Cardinal Ratzinger many times over the years, including the 1988 three-day conference in New York City.
“We had a group of about 20 theologians, Catholic and Protestant, for the Erasmus lecture,” he said. “He spoke as a first-rate professor then, and as Pope he still has a lot of the professor in him, along with the same self-deprecating humor from time to time.”
When Benedict comes to the United States, Father Neuhaus said, “What we’ll see is the man we know, a very gentle human being, a very precise thinker who has a marvelous gift of eloquence. He will be clear about what the Church in the United States needs to hear.”
That message will be, Father Neuhaus added, “the fullness of the Catholic faith, both to the Church and the world.”
Stephen Vincent writes from