Benedict XVI Presided at Our Wedding Mass
Benedict XVI showed himself to be a personable pope, a personal pope and a remarkably person-centered pope.
In light of his recent death, I want to recall the Benedict I came to know up close.
This story begins on a Thursday morning in 2004 in Santa Maria della Pietà in Camposanto dei Teutonici, a Vatican church standing small but serene in the strong, reassuring shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica. The best-kept open secret in Christendom then was that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger regularly celebrated Mass in this small church on Thursdays at 7am; it was a public Mass open to all without invitation.
After celebrating Mass with his unaffected reverence and natural simplicity, the cardinal headed toward the sacristy. Some managed to catch a glimpse of him divesting from his liturgical garb, quietly and intentionally, in a spirit of deep recollection, as was his custom.
The relatively small, gray-haired priest of Christ emerged from the sacristy, slightly hunched over and wearing a modest and worn black cassock. Cardinal Ratzinger looked up and walked directly toward the long line of Mass attendees of diverse nationalities eagerly awaiting him. He spent significant time with the pilgrims before him, warmly interacting with and kindly engaging each in a face-to-face dialogue, conversing easily in their respective languages, looking joyfully into their eyes, gently shaking hands, occasionally joking, curiously asking what brought them here and which diocese they hail from, keenly awaiting their answers, and at their request signing autographs and readily joining in pictures with them. Regardless of who it was, he gave each his undivided attention — beholding them with a gentle gaze of devoted affection that set them at peace. This was not an aberration but rather the typical mise-en-scène after each of the cardinal’s Thursday morning Masses.
By now, the queue had shortened. It was our turn. After reminding him that we once met briefly, which he remembered, my fiancée and I said: “We have a favor to ask of you. Would you celebrate our wedding Mass?” Responding in his serene and heartening manner, he said, “Well, let’s see what we can do. It would be helpful if you would put your request in writing to me, along with some possible times, dates and churches, and give it to my assistant here, Msgr. Georg Gänswein.”
“Actually, we already have the request prepared for you, with several possibilities,” I said.
Presenting our letter in hand, the cardinal gave us a playful smile, indicating he was impressed by our preparedness. We thought a “No” to the question would be probable and understandable and a “Yes” astounding and undeserved.
Regardless of the response, the personal, tête-à-tête encounter we and so many others had that morning made this one fact copiously clear: Ratzinger was a person with and for other persons, a Christlike shepherd who truly knew his flock (John 10:14), a good shepherd always listening to and for the cry of his flock and responding to them in his own voice (John 10: 3-4, 27).
We heard his voice respond within a week: “Yes.”
While there is much more to this story and to the other encounters we shared with him as an engaged, then married, couple and ultimately as a family with our beloved children now present, we remain grateful for the blessing on June 24, 2004, in St. Peter’s Basilica, as Joseph Ratzinger served as the principal celebrant of our nuptial Mass and the primary ecclesiastical witness, also giving us and all present the gift of a masterful, half-hour homily for the ages, in which he said: “The fundamental formula of human existence that Christ has given us takes place in marriage: Only he who wants to keep his life will lose it; and he who loses it, who gives it away, who truly gives himself, he will find life” (John 12:24-25).
For Ratzinger, the magnitude of marriage in all its dimensions, from the ordinary, everyday, sacrificial acts of spouses for each other to the extraordinary, spousal act of giving themselves and thus children to each other, all of their marital giving manifests the essence of the Gospel, of Christ’s self-giving to and for others. What exactly this “fundamental formula of human existence that Christ has given us” is, he showed to us by his personal example. He requested to meet and speak with us before the wedding in what turned out to be a lengthy and very personal meeting with him alone; he unexpectedly gave us a special, unmerited present after the wedding; and as pope, he gave of himself during other personal encounters at Castel Gandolfo and elsewhere in the Vatican, sometimes with the whole family present.
Although we had no previous, established relationship with or special connection to the cardinal that would have given him good reason to celebrate our nuptial Mass, that in itself is precisely the point and takeaway of the story: He needed no reason. He was simply being himself and serving his vocation, saying “Yes” to and for others, in laying himself down for them (John 10:11, 15).
His response to our question reveals the answer to the larger question people have been asking since his death: Who was Pope Benedict XVI? From the Bavarian heartland to the bustling streets of the Borgo Pio, from Europe and beyond, family, friends, colleagues and people from all walks of life who knew and remember the real person all bear the same consistent, historical testimony as ours: Pope Benedict XVI was not only a personable and personal pope but a person-centered pope; he unswervingly strove to pray and think, to speak and act for, with and in the Person of Jesus Christ and thus for and with other persons.
What he lived as a person is what he thought and wrote of the person, including in Communio International Catholic Review: “The human person is all the more with itself, and is itself, the more it is able to reach beyond itself, the more it is with the other, then the person is all the more itself the more it is with the wholly other, God.”
Anthony Valle is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Columbia University, a recipient of the Fondazione Vaticana Joseph Ratzinger-Benedetto XVI scholarship, and a member of the Neuer Schülerkreis Joseph Ratzinger/Papst Benedikt XVI.