Pope Emeritus Benedict: 65 Years a Priest
COMMENTARY: Reflections of an unexpected encounter with the pope emeritus.
On June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI celebrates the 65th anniversary of his priestly ordination. It will be a day of pairs: the twin princes of the apostles — Peter and Paul; the two priests marking 65 years, as Benedict XVI will be joined by his older brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, also ordained on the same day; and the celebration in the Vatican on the vigil of the feast, June 28, included two “popes,” as it were, the Pope and the pope emeritus, as Pope Francis paid tribute to his predecessor.
What is there to say on such an occasion? Too much, really, for a short reflection, as Joseph Ratzinger is the greatest Catholic theologian of his generation and perhaps the only man who could have immediately succeeded the great John Paul II. Perhaps, then, I might share a memory instead, one that involves another pair — the protagonists of that extraordinary 35-year pontificate in two acts, John Paul and Benedict.
In 2015, for our annual St. John Fisher Dinner in Kingston, Canada, I wanted to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of John Paul and the election of Benedict. I commissioned an original portrait by Canada’s leading portrait artist, Cyril Leeper, who often paints cardinals and bishops, as well as university chancellors and, recently, the chief justice of the Canadian Supreme Court. I asked him to portray the moment during John Paul’s inaugural Mass on Oct. 22, 1978, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offered his homage to the new Pope. For our portrait, Leeper used the conté style of drawing, rather than an oil painting.
The scene that Leeper depicted marked a historic moment in the life of the Church — the date that would become St. John Paul’s feast day and upon which he exhorted us to “Be not afraid!” In turn, Benedict XVI interpreted those words in his own inaugural homily of April 24, 2005, addressing them to young people. In our mission on campus, we never cease quoting Benedict’s assurance that “nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing” is lost when we allow Christ into our lives.
I had been invited to address a clergy conference in Rome in January 2015 and had the idea of showing the portrait to the pope emeritus, asking him to bless it. I wrote in advance, but was informed that it would not be possible to meet Benedict XVI. So who would bless it?
Cardinal Raymond Burke attended the talk I gave during the conference, and so I asked if he might be willing to do so, which he kindly agreed to do after the closing Mass of the conference in St. Peter’s Basilica. He did so with great graciousness, in a lovely little “chapel of the canons” just off the main sacristy of St. Peter’s.
Neither Cardinal Burke nor I had seen it before, so that added a special grace to the portrait blessing. The Canadian ambassador to the Holy See, Dennis Savoie, former deputy supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, and his wife came for the Mass, so they were able to join us for the blessing, which was suitable, as he was given a copy of the portrait, which now hangs in his residence. I was most pleased at how everything had turned out.
Then — the extraordinary: A last-minute call came from the papal household, inviting me to meet Pope Emeritus Benedict that afternoon.
I invited Father Anthony Denton, my Australian friend from our days together as seminarians in Rome, to join me, as his Italian is better than mine, and he was also present at the clergy conference.
We were taken up to the Lourdes Grotto in the Vatican Gardens at 4pm, and after a short wait, Benedict came to the end of his daily afternoon walk. He was quite frail, was using a walker and was wrapped up in a warm white jacket, white scarf around his neck and an insulated white cap with a long brim and flaps down over the ears. We spoke in Italian, and he spoke very quietly. I was rather nervous, you can imagine, about my Italian in such a setting, but I was able to express myself adequately, if not well! Anthony’s Italian is much better than mine, so once or twice he was able to clarify a question that I did not understand properly.
Benedict was accompanied by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, his secretary, and his older brother, Msgr. Georg, who was in a motorized wheelchair. We greeted the pope emeritus and introduced ourselves, and the Holy Father asked Father Denton about his graduate studies.
In due course, I told him that I was a university chaplain in Canada and showed him the portrait of St. John Paul II and him. He immediately recognized it as their embrace from the Oct. 22, 1978, Mass at which the saintly Pope began his pontificate with the famous “Be Not Afraid — Open Wide the Doors to Christ” homily.
He pronounced it “molto bello,” and then I explained the various symbols. When I told him that the window of the apostolic palace was a reference to the “window of the Father’s house” from his funeral homily for St. John Paul II, he looked at me with a small smile, recalling what must have been one of the more profound moments of his own life. He asked about the artist. I told him that the image would hang in our chapel, and he blessed the image with a discreet Sign of the Cross, typical of the reserved gestures that marked his liturgical style.
I then thanked him for all his service to the Church and promised our prayers for his continued service, to which he rather firmly responded “Si, in un’altra forma” (“Yes, in another form”), lest there be any confusion about how he would serve the Church.
“Thank you for all you have given us — in your teachings, in the liturgy …” Father Denton said. Benedict interrupted him and responded immediately, “Il Signore ha dato; il Signore ha dato. … Tutti ha dato” (“The Lord has given; the Lord has given. … He has given everything”).
It was a very beautiful and moving meeting for both Father Anthony and me. We spent about 10 minutes with Benedict. We then both greeted Msgr. Georg, but he did not respond — perhaps he could not hear us, as he was quite well-wrapped up, too. The Ratzinger brothers were feeling the January chill.
After Benedict left — in a very elegant white golf cart, with tan leather seats and covered with a glass top like a miniature popemobile — the guard told us we could stay, so we prayed the Rosary at the grotto together for Pope Benedict and for Pope Francis, commending them both to the intercession of the Blessed Mother and St. John Paul.
It was a beautiful encounter with a beautiful and great soul — a priestly soul living out the evening of a life in which great things were accomplished for God and his Church.
is editor in chief of