A Year Without Benedict

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: His words often had a way of making the vast mystery of the God-Man understandable, always presenting Jesus in his fullness, from his simple birth to his suffering, death and resurrection.

Pope Benedict XVI wears a festive hat on Dec. 21, 2005.
Pope Benedict XVI wears a festive hat on Dec. 21, 2005. (photo: L’Osservatore Romano / Vatican Media)

If you were fortunate enough to have had a loving grandfather in your life, you know what a special blessing that is. Even when we lose them, as we inevitably must, we treasure their memory and the legacy they left us. Their words and their example sometimes may have seemed outdated to us, yet their wisdom was, so often, exactly what we needed to hear. That is why they continue to shape us for the rest of our lives.

In a sense, that’s the kind of relationship we Catholics had with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Even Pope Francis, who often visited with him in the Vatican Gardens monastery where he spent his final years, came to think of his predecessor as a “wise grandfather” he could go to for counsel and support.

Although Catholics around the world were shocked and saddened by Benedict’s resignation in 2013, we eventually grew accustomed to his altered role out of the spotlight. He rarely spoke or even appeared in public, but we were comforted to know he was there, living a quiet retirement devoted to prayer and study.

And then, on Dec. 31, 2022, he was gone.

A year has passed since his death, and as often happens when we lose a loved one, the passage of time has afforded us a clearer perspective on just how extraordinary a person and pope he was.

This first anniversary lends a nostalgic note to our celebration of Christmas, yet it’s fitting that we remember him this time of year. As those closest to him will tell you, no one relished Christmas more than Benedict. A son of Bavaria, he never lost his boyish love of gift-giving and the wonderment he felt for the Christkind.

It was his fascination with the Incarnation that led him to write his three-book series Jesus of Nazareth. One slender volume of that series focuses on the “Infancy Narratives”; just 129 pages, it merits reading and rereading every Advent, so richly does he illuminate the details of the Gospel accounts we too often take for granted.

Benedict’s love and longing for Christ made him a living embodiment of Psalm 24: “Lord, this is the people who long to see your face!” Because of that, it must have pained him to see such zeal disappearing from our increasingly secularized world, particularly in the West.

He often drew our attention to this distressing trend at Christmas.

“The question is: Is the humanity of our time still waiting for a Savior?” he pointedly asked in 2006, describing how even believers are sometimes misled by “deceptive shortcuts to happiness.”

“One has the feeling that many consider God as foreign to their own interests,” he said.

“Yet, despite its contradictions, worries and tragedies, and perhaps precisely because of them,” he continued, “humanity today … seeks a Savior and awaits, sometimes unconsciously, the coming of the Savior who renews the world and our life.”

Benedict’s words are even more apropos today than they were so many Christmases ago. The troubling events of the past year — our first without him — including the wars in Israel and Ukraine, political dysfunction and the rise of militant woke ideology here in the U.S.; or the polarization within our own Church, especially over its consistent teachings on sexual morality, have served to deepen a sense of disorientation that many struggle with today.

It sometimes seems as if the world no longer speaks a language we understand. Regrettably, some in our Church, determined to distort Pope Francis’ calls for openness and dialogue into a cry for revolution, have added to the fog of confusion by adopting a strange, sociological “churchspeak” that few of the faithful can fathom.

Benedict, even now, serves as an antidote to all of this uncertainty. He was — and remains, thanks to his prodigious body of writings and lectures — a consummate teacher and a sure spiritual guide. Open any of his works to a random page and you’ll quickly learn something important. In Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, for example, he discusses why iconographers traditionally have viewed the Baby Jesus’ swaddling clothes as a prefiguring of his death.

His words often had a way of making the vast mystery of the God-Man understandable, always presenting Jesus in his fullness, from his simple birth to his suffering, death and resurrection.

It’s easy to understand why Benedict had set his heart on returning to Bavaria one day to write because there was so much more he wanted to explore, and explain, for the sake of the Church, for the sake of making God more known to us. Time after time, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger submitted his resignation to Pope John Paul II, who never accepted it. And then John Paul died, with the latest resignation request still unanswered.

And then the College of Cardinals elected Benedict pope. The Author of Life had written a different end to his story than the one he would have penned himself.

Benedict may have been saddened by the decline of faith he witnessed over his 95 years of life, but he never lost hope nor his childlike joy. That is the best gift any of us can ask for this Christmas.

In an interview with EWTN earlier this year, his longtime personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, shared a conversation he once had with Pope Emeritus Benedict concerning the current state of the Church.

“You know the Gospel a little, don’t you?” Benedict teased him. He then related the story of the storm-tossed apostles and how, with only a few words from Jesus, the sea calmed.

“Look, the Lord doesn’t sleep!” Benedict said, according to the archbishop. “So, if, even in his presence, the disciples were afraid, it’s quite normal that the disciples of today can be afraid, here and there. But never forget one thing: He is here, and he remains here.”

“And in all that’s troubling you now, that’s difficult for you now, that weighs on your heart or on your stomach,” he said, “that is something you must never forget!”

This Christmas, let us heed those wise words of our departed spiritual grandfather, remembering that God is with us.

Merry Christmas. God bless you!