Benedict XVI: A Pope for the Church’s Shepherds

Priests and religious worldwide reflect on the legacy of the late pontiff.

‘Benedict has instilled that culture of tradition,’ said Father Thabang Nkadimeng, a South African-born priest now serving in the U.S. Virgin Islands, in remembrance of the late pope, who he was able to meet.
‘Benedict has instilled that culture of tradition,’ said Father Thabang Nkadimeng, a South African-born priest now serving in the U.S. Virgin Islands, in remembrance of the late pope, who he was able to meet. (photo: Courtesy of Father Thabang Nkadimeng)

Pope Benedict XVI’s unwavering commitment to communicating Church teaching with clarity and pastoral charity has become a source of continued inspiration for many around the world who have dedicated their lives to the priesthood and religious life.

As the Church mourns the passing of Benedict XVI on Dec. 31, the Register spoke with several people who spoke fondly of the late pope on the eve of his funeral Mass Jan. 5 at the Vatican.

Father Harrison Ayre is one of many priests who told the Register how the former pontiff has enriched his vocation and — in some cases — contributed to his decision to pursue a priestly vocation. “The radical and open charity he had, especially to those he disagreed with, has really formed my entire pastoral style,” said Father Ayre, a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, Canada. 

“I have learned so much about his pastoral charity, and so many things he did in the positions God asked of him,” he told the Register in an email. 

“He was a diocesan priest and he knew always that was his first vocation,” Father Ayre, ordained in 2015, said. “There is not one area where I haven’t seen his influence and impact!”

“Benedict XVI truly believed what he taught and proclaimed,” said Father Pietro Rossotti of the Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, editor of Called to Holiness: On Love, Vocation, and Formation, a collection of Benedict’s talks and writings directed at seminarians, priests and religious.

“He, as supreme pontiff and bishop of Rome, understood very well that the bishop is a father and he must make the care of vocations a priority of his ministry,” he told the Register via email.

He “gives the Church — priests and seminarians in particular — a luminous example of a priest close to men and women because he was close to the heart of Christ and the Church,” said Father Rossotti, who is a member of the faculty at St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota. 

Benedict XVI, who was given the title “emeritus” following his resignation from the papal office in February 2013, died at his Vatican residence of the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery at the age of 95. 

“We knew it was coming, we knew he was very ill, we knew he wouldn’t live forever, but still there was always something kind of nice, of knowing that he was still present and offering his prayers,” said Father Paul Scalia, episcopal vicar for clergy for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.

While he felt “sorrow for the passing of such a great example of a shepherd,” Father Scalia said, there is “also hope for his eternal reward and his constant intercession for the Church in heaven.”

“I felt like I lost a true father in the faith,” said Father Rossotti, confessing that he cried, as he had done when his own father died a decade prior. “However, I was also very grateful to God for the gift of this great remarkable man to me and the Church.”

Father Ayre told the Register that he felt “mostly gratitude” in response to the news of Benedict’s death. 

“There is a sadness, but what is more deeply felt is a gratitude for a man who is one of the most significant formators of my faith as a Catholic,” he said.


First Encounters

Media representations of Cardinal Ratzinger over the years have frequently mischaracterized him as “God’s Rottweiler,” as well the Panzerkardinal.

It, therefore, came as a surprise to Dominican Brother Daniel Benedikt Zucker, a native of Germany, when Cardinal Ratzinger presided over the funeral of Pope St. John Paul II.

Brother Daniel, who had already discovered his vocation, told the Register in an email, “I thought, ‘Who is this cardinal celebrating in that holy manner and speaking so clearly?’ Then I recognized that this is the famous Panzerkardinal.”

Studying at the Angelicum in Rome years later, personal encounters with Cardinal Ratzinger gave Brother Daniel the added opportunity to see the man “behind the papacy”: a man of dignity, who was affable and even “shy.” According to Brother Daniel, he received the impression “that this great man would listen to me, asking me about my vocation and my life,” not only out of politeness but out of sincere interest. 

Brother Daniel, who transferred to the Dominicans in 2022 from the Diocese of Feldkirch, Austria, would eventually choose the name Benedikt as his religious name.

Other priests have cited Pope Benedict’s presence at the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne as a significant moment in their vocational discernment.

“He explained that, in Eucharistic adoration, the Lord is truly present to us, just as he was in Bethlehem to the Magi,” said Father Richard Marsden, a priest of the Diocese of Middlesbrough, England. 

“Coming before the Eucharistic Lord in adoration and in the Mass on that field having heard those words, something profound happened in the development of my understanding and love of the Blessed Sacrament,” he said.

This, in turn, led to “a deepening of devotion to the Eucharist, which led to my priestly vocation,” added Father Marsden.

Greeting Benedict XVI
Father Richard Marsden greeting Pope Benedict.

Although he had considered a vocation to the priesthood after his conversion, Father Ayre said it was that “World Youth Day, culminating in that concluding Mass” in Cologne, which “brought a lot to ponder about the ‘new way and path’ of life that comes from following Christ.” 

“I returned from World Youth Day more eager about the idea of priesthood again,” he said.


Religious Sisters

Although often elevated as a good example for seminarians and priests to emulate, Benedict’s theology also speaks to women who are living out their vocation as religious sisters. 

“I remember reading a comment from someone that said that Benedict had the intellect of a great scholar and the heart of a boy who just made his first communion,” said Pauline Sister Tracey Matthia Dugas, . “His love for Jesus kept him young because his heart was captivated by the person of Christ, the face of Jesus.”

Prior to his election, Sister Tracey, based in Boston, admitted that she struggled to “understand the personality of Cardinal Ratzinger,” as well as his approach to “doctrinal questions that arose” during his tenure as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. It was not until after his papal election, when she began delving into his writings, that she came to realize “how deeply he loved Jesus,” and how “how everything he taught flowed from a deep love for God and a desire to serve the greater good of the Church.”

“His legacy is his living and loving relationship with Jesus, Sister Tracey said. “Only this kind of love for Jesus can sustain a religious vocation. 

“Benedict lived his love for God in such a way that this love was completely married to his bright intellect and theological insight. He shows how God edifies and integrates all of our personality as we make the offering of ourselves to him.”

Another religious sister, who requested anonymity, told the Register that she had known little about Cardinal Ratzinger when she entered the cloistered Colletine Poor Clare monastery in Alexandria, Virginia, where she came across his Introduction to Christianity. “It sounds overdramatic, but that book changed my life,” the sister said.

“At first, I was startled, and even shocked, by some of the things he said because he thought and wrote in a way that was unfamiliar to me,” she said. “He invited you to look at the truth with new eyes, to see how beautiful it was, to see that the Truth was a Person, Jesus Christ, and that the point of theology was to look deeper and farther in order to see that beautiful Truth more clearly and to love that beautiful Person more devotedly.”

“I’m certain I’m stronger as a Christian because of reading him, and that, in turn, has strengthened my vocation as a religious,” the Poor Clare sister said.


A Lasting Legacy

There is still much to unpack from Pope Benedict XVI’s life and writings, with some of his works still untranslated, and “secondary academic literature on him is still rather sparse,” Father Ayre said. 

“What makes him stand apart, what makes every great theologian stand apart, is that they had to suffer for their theology, and Benedict was no exception,” Father Ayre said. “In many ways, this was the shape of his faith: He understood that to find Christ, one must enter Christ’s way. One has to endure with the purifying power of the Truth that is a Person in order to truly fall in love.”

Benedict’s “theological impact cannot be underestimated,” the Canadian priest added. “I would argue, in terms of theological method, he emphasizes the importance of the limit of certain disciplines when speaking about the faith, as well as theology being properly integrated and interconnected.”

Benedict’s reverence for Catholic Tradition, especially in the context of the sacred liturgy, has also been stressed as an essential part of his legacy for seminarians, priests and religious. 

Father Christopher Smith was a high-school student who had recently converted to Catholicism when he came across a copy of The Ratzinger Report, the 1985 interview with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

“I picked it up and learned so much about the contemporary debates in the Church over the interpretation of Vatican II and the liturgy,” said Father Smith, a priest for the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina. “I knew from that moment that I wanted to be a theologian with a special focus on the liturgy.”

“My entire ministry as a priest has been devoted to teaching the hermeneutic of continuity in theology and the mutual enrichment of both forms of the Roman Rite,” he said.

Father Ayre added, “His liturgical writings have had a massive impact on how I celebrate and understand the importance of the liturgy for the Catholic.”

He said that, for seminarians and priests who take the time to read Benedict’s works, “they see a man who loves Jesus, the Church, her tradition, her liturgy, and also the confidence to go forward into the world with the joy of Christ who is known concretely today.”

“Benedict has instilled that culture of tradition,” said Father Thabang Nkadimeng, a South African-born priest now serving in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

While “most people have actually misunderstood [Benedict XVI to be] a traditionalist,” he stressed the importance of Tradition. “If we’re going to be innovative, we still need to know exactly where we come from.” 

“To actually get more vocations into the priesthood, we need to be faithful to our own liturgy,” he said. “We need to be proud of who we are and our traditions.”

For his part, Father Scalia said it was his belief and “hope” that Benedict’s “great attention” and “devotion” to the liturgy would be part of the legacy which would be left for future priests. 

While stressing the importance of making “the distinction between tradition and traditionalism,” Father Scalia noted that “every Catholic really has to have a great appreciation for tradition.” 

“If not [through] what we call the traditional Latin Mass, then at least a devotion to Tradition.”

“We don’t stand in the present and judge the past,” said Father Scalia. “We bring the past forward into the present, and we kind of make it present here.”

“Liturgically, [Benedict] gave great new vigor to that,” said the Arlington priest. “He was just so confident about the beauty of it, the truth of it, and its staying power.”

Although Benedict XVI held the papal office for less than 10 years, his writings as Cardinal Ratzinger were already inspiring would-be priests and religious decades prior to his 2005 election to the papacy.

“Because so much of his work was prior to his being pope, I think he could write more broadly, more freely, about things than a pope could,” Father Scalia said, adding that he also found Benedict’s style “to be more accessible.”

“He was a man who had a great understanding of the troubles in the modern world, and the evils,” but “you never encountered any rancor or bitterness in his writings.”

For Father Marsden, “Pope Benedict’s clarity and profound depth of Catholic teaching provided firm foundations on which to build my life upon the rock of Holy Mother Church, amid the shifting sands of our relativistic world.”

Father Joseph Fessio with then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger during his 1999 visit to Ignatius Press.

Father Fessio on ‘Professor Ratzinger,’ the Future Benedict XVI

‘He was just a wonderful listener. He listened and he could remember things. He could synthesize things in each of those seminars like an experience of a symphony where you hear all these different instruments come in and play separately, and then he somehow put them together at the end and make a whole.’