A Millennial Reflects: Why This JPII-Generation Catholic Is Also a Benedict XVI Catholic

While I may have grown up with John Paul II, I became an adult with Pope Benedict XVI.

Kate Bryan catches a moment with Pope Benedict XVI on his popemobile.
Kate Bryan catches a moment with Pope Benedict XVI on his popemobile. (photo: Courtesy Photo / Vatican Media)

On a beautiful spring day in 2006 in Rome, I stood in St. Peter’s Square for hours in hopes of catching a glimpse of our pontiff at the time, Pope Benedict. To my shock and awe, I would not only catch a glimpse — I would find myself, standing on a folding chair, looking Pope Benedict straight in the eye and waving to him. What an incredible moment in my life — and I didn’t realize how impactful it was until I heard of Pope Benedict’s passing earlier this week. It’s sad but true that oftentimes we don’t realize how impactful a moment or a person is in our life until they’re gone. And that was what struck me about Pope Benedict in recent days. 

When I heard of Pope Benedict’s passing, the grief hit me so hard: It almost surprised me a bit. I’ve always thought of myself as a “JPII-generation Catholic” and didn’t realize until this week how deeply Pope Benedict affected me and my life. I’ve read many of Pope Benedict’s writings through the years and always held him in high regard. And I saw him in person twice: in St. Peter’s Square in 2006 and then at World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011, almost bookends to his papacy.  

But what I realized this week is the critical role that Pope Benedict played in my life, and I think now we’re beginning to see the impact he had on so many others.  

Pope Benedict was a great thinker, powerful preacher and an eloquent writer. After seeing him in St. Peter’s Square, I remember all I felt was warmth, joy and love beaming from this man. (After that, I would quash any “haters” commentary, defending him to others.) 

I was born in 1984, so for the majority of my life, Pope John Paul II was the only pope I had ever known. When Pope Benedict was announced, I remember being excited because so many others that I trusted were overjoyed.  

But I also didn’t expect that Pope Benedict would have as big of an impact as JPII had on my life. It was an attitude of “I already had the best dad — I don’t need someone else to take his place.” My generation had walked through so many traumatic, life-altering events with John Paull II as pope, and he was such a great leader through it all, that it was difficult to fathom that someone else could be as significant in our lives. I was a freshman in high school when the Columbine shooting happened and a senior when 9/11 occurred. Those two things alone were life-altering moments, and Pope John Paul II lead us through those terrifying and heartbreaking moments as our spiritual father. John Paul II had a very special connection with young people, and I felt so connected to him, always, as my spiritual father.  

 At 18, I saved up my money and traveled by myself with a group of strangers to World Youth Day in Toronto to see Pope John Paul II.  

Many young people would spend their money on concert tickets and trips with their friends, but John Paul II started a revolution when he founded World Youth Day, and hundreds of thousands of young people would travel from every corner of the world to attend wherever it was taking place in the world. World Youth Day is still going on today, but John Paul II seemed to have a unique connection with young people, so it really seems like it’s not as popular as it was when he was pope. John Paul II founded World Youth Day in the 1980s, and the last one he was present at was the one I was at in Canada in 2002. I remember how broken my heart was the day he died a few short years later, on April 2, 2005. But to my surprise, I felt the exact same pain and grief that I felt with John Paul II this week with Pope Benedict’s passing.   

But why? Pope Benedict was “Pope Emeritus” longer than he actually served as pope. He didn’t walk through as many life-altering moments in life with my generation as JPII did. And we had much less time with him in our lives than we did with JPII, not just as pope, but since he stepped down as pope to live a life of prayer.  

What I came to realize this week is that while Pope Benedict was pope for less time than John Paul II or even Pope Francis at this point, he used his time so wisely and he served us so well. 

And while I may have grown up with John Paul II, I became an adult with Pope Benedict XVI. It was during Pope Benedict’s papacy that I decided to study theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. I studied Pope Benedict’s writings and preaching, and those are still some of the most transformative things I have ever read. Pope Benedict taught me how to pray, how to ask questions about the faith, and how to defend my faith as an adult. Pope Benedict taught me that you don’t always have to speak up or speak out, but sometimes being thoughtful, curious and asking questions can be the greatest defense. Pope Benedict leaves behind a legacy of reflections, preaching and writings that have already touched the lives of so many and will surely continue to encourage belief in Christ and challenge all of us to fall more deeply in love with our own faith.  

Pope Benedict also leaves behind the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Did you know he’s often referred to as the “Father of the Catechism of the Catholic Church” because John Paul II entrusted him with putting the Catechism together? Providentially, Father Mike Schmitz’s new podcast, The Catechism in a Year, was released the day after Pope Benedict died.  

While Pope Benedict may have had less time as pope, Pope Benedict is and will always be such an integral part of my life and our faith. He leaves behind an incredible legacy, and I’m sure his notoriety and impact will only continue to grow from here. Some people have brought up the possibility of Pope Benedict becoming a doctor of the Church. Pope Benedict’s legacy lives on.

Kate Bryan is a writer, speaker, and author of Living the Feminist Dream: A Faithful Vision for Women in the Church and the World.