How Blessed by God We Were by Benedict XVI’s Life and Legacy

COMMENTARY: I think his most durable lesson will be his focus on God. He sought to lead us toward God. His homilies were doxological, focused above all on God and his glory.

Benedict XVI arrives to celebrate a mass in St Peter's Square to mark the third anniversary of the death of pope John Paul II in Vatican on April 2, 2008.
Benedict XVI arrives to celebrate a mass in St Peter's Square to mark the third anniversary of the death of pope John Paul II in Vatican on April 2, 2008. (photo: Andreas Solaro / AFP/Getty)

In these days since the death of Pope Benedict, I’ve been pondering the influence he has had in my formation as a disciple and a priest and have been thanking God for all the blessings he gave me and the Church through this self-defined life as a “simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”

I first became aware of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when I was a college freshman in 1988. I had always been a faithful, practicing Catholic, but I had never really taken the intellectual side of our faith that seriously. All of this changed when I got to Harvard and encountered different students and professors who were hostile against the faith, pretending that the Good News was evil news and that the Church was an enemy of humanity. I also met Catholic students who, while still coming to Mass on Sunday, were, by choice and not by weakness, proudly and flamboyantly rejecting to live by the Church’s teachings, treating, among other things, Christian sexual morality as a fire extinguisher on human love rather than the truth that sets us free.

It was a huge wake-up call. After getting ambushed in a few dormitory conversations, outnumbered five or six to one, I concluded that if I were going to defend the Church’s teachings and help my classmates, I would have to become much smarter, learning not just my faith but also contemporary thought much better.

A priest recommended I read The Ratzinger Report, Vittorio Messori’s fascinating 1985 book-length interview with the-then prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In it, Cardinal Ratzinger minced no words about the problems facing the Church and the world, but also proposed with confidence what he thought the Church needed to do to help those in the world find healing. He had such a deep and clear understanding of the cancers afflicting modern philosophy, theology and life, as well as the chemotherapy our times needed.

That led me to start to devour everything I could from him and to read the books and Church documents he cited. Standing on his shoulders in my late teens and early 20s, I could see things far more clearly. To use one of his own images, he was a master alpine climber who through his books was coming down to guide me on the path toward the summit. His expertise and experience were training me to become a better disciple and collegiate apostle.

When I arrived in Rome as a seminarian, there were two people I really wanted to meet. The first was, obviously, Pope John Paul II. But a close second was Cardinal Ratzinger. I was not alone in those desires. Many of my classmates were likewise big fans of Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings and courage in defending the doctrine of the faith. Older seminarians told us that he celebrated Mass each week at the Teutonic College inside the Vatican walls. So a group of fellow aspirants to the priesthood and I went one morning to his Mass, celebrated in German, after which he very warmly greeted us, asked where we were from, and encouraged us in our preparation.

About a year later, I was standing on the Borgo Pio at 4pm when I saw him come out of the back of the apartment complex in which he lived. I went over to greet him. He very kindly spent a few minutes with me before he politely excused himself to go on a walk praying the Rosary. Later, I saw him come out of the same door at precisely the same time. Sensing a well-defined habit, I made a resolution that whenever I was in that neighborhood a little before 4, I would go over to greet him. I was there a lot, with visiting seminarians and friends.

After I had “accidentally” bumped into him more than a dozen times, he commented, with a grin and a knowing look, “How is it that you seem to be here on the Borgo Pio so often during the afternoon?” I smiled back at him and said, “You’re not the only one, Eminence, who needs afternoon exercise to work off a big pranzo [lunch]. And you never know whom you might meet!” We had a good laugh together. In all these conversations, he never seemed to be in a rush. He was always interested in what I and those with me were studying, and he would never fail to give words of encouragement and evidence of his deep Christian joy.

After John Paul II returned to the house of the Father, I was among the many praying that the Holy Spirit would move the College of Cardinals to elect this German shepherd because I thought he would be an unparalleled intellectual leader for the Church. I was on retreat when word of the white smoke came. The retreat master got us all together before the one television in the retreat center. As soon as Cardinal Jorge Medina announced “Josephum,” I raised my arms and started rejoicing, anticipating that there was no way Cardinal Joseph Glemp of Warsaw had been elected on the fourth ballot. Then came the surname “Ratzinger,” and with all the other priests on retreat, we burst out in celebration.

The 2,873 days of his papacy were for me a real theological feast of faith: his homilies, general audience catecheses, Sunday Angelus or Regina Caeli meditations, three encyclicals, two apostolic exhortations, the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, his speeches, written messages, interviews, question-and-answer sessions and so much more.

His words regularly became the raw material for my prayer, homilies, retreats, adult education courses, writings and continual conversion.

From the beginning, I knew that we were in a special pontificate, with a living doctor of the Church sitting on the Chair of Peter. I was not going to let the grace of his teaching go in vain. Every time I have opened my mind and heart to what came from his, it felt like my intellect and will were getting bathed in cool, pure water.

Of all that he taught and gave us, I think his most durable lesson will be his focus on God. He sought to lead us toward God.

His homilies were doxological, focused above all on God and his glory.

His encyclicals were about the theological virtues, love, hope and faith (which Pope Francis published) by which we relate to God.

He labored to bring back a true and fitting worship — a logike latreia, to use St. Paul’s words that he so often quoted (Romans 12:1) — in the celebration of the Mass, after decades of liturgical confusion. The Mass, he taught by word, writing and witness, is fundamentally theocentric, in which priest and people are called to focus on God, rather than remaining a self-enclosed circle worshipping themselves. The ars celebrandi, the art of celebrating the Mass, he taught priests and faithful, is to align our minds, hearts, soul, strength and all we are, body and soul, to the prayers being directed toward God the Father and in loving adoration of the Word-made-flesh.

Even his renunciation of the papacy gave witness to the primacy of God. He said he was resigning “after having repeatedly examined my conscience before God,” heeding what he had previous defined as the “inner organ of sensitivity” to God’s voice, and courageously continued his lifetime habit of saying “Yes” to what God was asking. He did so, he declared, so that he would “devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.” He showed that he believed that prayer was even more important than the enormously consequential work of the papacy.

Pope Francis highlighted the importance of that work of prayer on the day of his predecessor’s death when he said the whole Church is filled with “gratitude to God for having given him to the Church and to the world; gratitude to him for all the good he accomplished; and above all, [gratitude] for his witness of faith and prayer, especially in these last years of his recollected life. Only God knows the value and the power of his intercession, of the sacrifices he offered for the good of the Church.”

Benedictus means “blessed by God,” and that’s exactly what we were by his life, by his profound theological legacy, and by his leading us all resolutely toward God until the end. And we pray that the “power of his intercession” will only grow more potent before God’s throne.