SEEK23 Speakers Remember Pope Benedict XVI on the Day of His Burial

Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis, the celebrant at the conference’s opening Mass on Jan. 2, asked those in attendance to dedicate the week to praying for the late Pope’s soul.

Some 17,000 people are gathered in St. Louis, Missouri for SEEK23, a weeklong conference of speakers, prayer, and fellowship put on by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).
Some 17,000 people are gathered in St. Louis, Missouri for SEEK23, a weeklong conference of speakers, prayer, and fellowship put on by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). (photo: FOCUS)

ST. LOUIS — As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was laid to rest in Rome Thursday after his death at age 95, speakers and attendees of the SEEK23 Catholic conference in St. Louis remembered the late Pope’s scholarship and love for Christ with fondness and gratitude.

Father Mike Schmitz, a keynote speaker at SEEK23 and the host of the “Bible in a Year” and “Catechism in a Year” podcasts, told CNA that he remembers, while in high school, looking in the Catechism for answers to a burning question he had about an aspect of the faith. The boldness and clarity of the explanation he found there stuck with him, he said.

Later, Father Schmitz learned that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — had presided over the committee to create the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was ultimately published in 1992.

“His brilliance, his genius, his love for the Lord — [the Catechism] is not just a heady document. [It has] a beauty that speaks to the heart, not just to the head,” Schmitz said.

“And I think sometimes people, they have a caricature of Pope Benedict… But they seem to intentionally ignore that everything I’ve ever read from him, everything I’ve ever heard him say, is permeated by not just truth but truth in love, truth spoken in love.”

Father Schmitz also said he considers the date of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s death — Dec. 31, 2022 — to be significant, since it was only a day before the “Catechism in a Year” podcast launched to the world. The podcast, which contains so many of the late Pope’s words, currently sits at the top of the charts.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the first Pope to resign from office in nearly 600 years, was buried Thursday in Rome before a crowd of tens of thousands. Royalty, cardinals, patriarchs, government officials, and many Catholic families and religious attended the funeral on a cold and foggy morning at the Vatican, and more than 3,700 priests concelebrated the Mass.

Half a world away, some 17,000 people are gathered in St. Louis for a weeklong conference of speakers, prayer, and fellowship put on by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). The gathering marks FOCUS’ first fully in-person national conference since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the conference, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s name has been on many lips and in many hearts.

Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski of St. Louis, the celebrant at the conference’s opening Mass the evening of Jan. 2, eulogized the late Pope at the beginning of his homily. He asked those in attendance to dedicate the week to praying for the late Pope’s soul.

“As we celebrate our Catholic faith this week, our thoughts also turn to prayer — for beloved Pope Benedict XVI, a man who preached the Gospel with his life, used his gifted intellect to explain our faith clearly, and served as our Holy Father from 2005 until 2013. May he experience the fullness of life promised by Jesus to his faithful ones. Let us dedicate this week to praying to Pope Benedict XVI and for the missionary zeal, for which he longed, to inspire our Church.”

Bishop Earl Fernandes of Columbus, Ohio, celebrating the morning Mass on the first full day of the conference quoted Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

“Now Pope Benedict XVI goes toward that event, to that horizon,” Bishop Fernandes said.

“His life always had a decisive direction, but a newness comes, and we commend him to the Lord, to Mary the Mother of Mercy. And yet, this is what he always wanted, this encounter, which is not an end but a new beginning.”

Paul J. Kim, a Catholic speaker, musician, and comedian who spoke at SEEK, told CNA that after the lengthy and joyful pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, when “Pope Benedict stepped out onto the balcony there at St. Peter’s, it was a great consolation.”

“One, because I knew he was just a solid Catholic cardinal who dedicated his life to upholding the truth of Christ and not mincing it, not watering it down. And for me, that was a great comfort,” Kim told CNA.

Kim, who gave a talk at SEEK23 offering tips for a happy Catholic marriage, said he saw Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005 and in Madrid, Spain, in 2011.

“He was just a very gentle, humble man, but a spiritual and theological giant. And I think the Church is going to be unpacking his stuff for a while. But yeah, rest in peace. Grateful for his example, his life of holiness, his total focus on Christ,” Kim said.

Lisa Cotter, another well-known Catholic speaker who has been involved in FOCUS for more than 20 years, said a letter Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote while a cardinal, “On Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World,” is her favorite of his many writings.

“It was something that spoke so directly to my heart as a woman, who’s a lay woman who’s married with children.

"Just the way that he explained and gave us this beautiful teaching on how men and women work together. It’s like taking John Paul II’s ‘Feminine Genius’ and giving it more depth. He really expanded, I think, on a lot of things that John Paul II brought up, but then he also had this beautiful Scripture academic side,” Cotter said.

“There’s so much I could say about him and how he’s impacted the Church. And, I think we all got a little starstruck with JPII that we didn’t recognize the gift of Benedict. But I think his legacy is really going to start to come out. And as much good as he was doing here on Earth, I’m really excited because I know he’s going to do infinitely more good work in heaven.”

Keynote speaker Chika Anyanwu told CNA that her first World Youth Day experience was in 2008 in Australia with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

She said she remembers waving to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI while he drove by a mostly empty side street, and how that felt to her like a “personal little moment with Pope Benedict,” whom she described as “like a grandfather.”

Anyanwu said she is praying for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and also praying that those within the Church who are critical of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s legacy will seek unity with those with whom they disagree.

“I’m praying for his soul, praying for all the faithful departed, and praying for our Church, that we are not one of division. Whether it’s Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, John Paul, so on and so forth — they were not so different,” Anyanwu said.

“Everyone wants to say, ‘Well, this Pope did this, and that Pope…’ Well, yeah, maybe they had different focuses, different emphases, but in everything that they did, their goal is to bring us to Jesus.”

Fellow keynote speaker Sister Miriam Heidland, SOLT, told CNA that she was living in Rome during the last years of Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate.

Sister Heidland, like Kim, experienced a feeling of comfort and “safety” when Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was chosen to succeed Pope St. John Paul II, knowing him to be a defender of the Catholic faith. But also, she said, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had a great friendship with Pope St. John Paul II and showed himself over the years to be a gentle and loving person, contrary to the prevailing media narrative that he was a hardline conservative.

“The media, from the start, just totally excoriated him and made fun of him and called him all these names. But when you read his works, Pope Benedict is such a lover. Such a brilliant man and such a tender lover who plays classical piano in his free time and just loves beauty and is kind,” Sister Heidland said.

“I think for me, the tender juxtaposition of his love of art and beauty and then his love of the intellectual life was just so captivating. And I don’t pretend to understand everything he writes about, but it certainly is always inspiring. He’s just such a beautiful man. And we certainly have lost a giant, but we’ve gained a tremendous intercessor. A tremendous intercessor in heaven and we are the better for it.”

Jackie Francois-Angel, a Catholic evangelist and author who speaks mainly about relationships, spoke passionately about her love for “Pope Benny.”

“He was such a grandpa, the very smart, just quiet, gentle grandpa, and he’s such a lovely, lovely soul,” Francois-Angel said.

Francois-Angel told CNA that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s words about the need for “witnesses” in the Catholic faith — meaning people who model the Christian life for others — stuck with her. She said a favorite quote of hers from the Pope Emeritus is “The world needs beauty and the world needs witnesses.”

“Because how are people going to know that [the Christian life] is possible unless you have witnesses? The world constantly says like, ‘Ah, it's not possible. … When you have witnesses, you’re like, ‘Yes, it is.’” she said. “Pope Benedict was like, ‘This is what the world needs. People will come to the Lord through beauty and through witness.’”