A Convert’s Take on the Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI

I grew up with JP2, but I grew in faith with B16.

Pope Benedict Wednesday Audience

Photo Credit: Sarah Dickmeyer

I didn’t grow up Catholic, but I certainly knew about Pope John Paul II. In something of a political sense, I knew him as the face of Christianity throughout the world and a fierce defender of freedom. However, when I was confirmed on Easter Vigil 2004, his health had been declining for years. I entered the Catholic Church not really knowing what it was like to have an active, engaged, visible shepherd. His leadership seemed rather symbolic.

When Pope John Paul II died less than a year later on April 2, 2004, I mourned. His loss to me was less about the death of someone I loved and more about the loss of someone I never really knew. It was the feeling of an opportunity missed.

As with so many of my generation, the process of electing a pope was completely new to me, and I watched the EWTN coverage with great interest. What was all this about a conclave and black or white smoke? What did “Habemus Papam!” mean, anyway? I was fascinated by the speculation about who it might be.

The announcement of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as the new pope seemed to be greeted by surprised yawns. Dean of the College of Cardinals and principal celebrant of Pope John Paul II’s funeral Mass, the man soon to be known as Pope Benedict XVI was highly regarded but not necessarily expected to inherit the Chair of Peter.

I recall thinking Ratzinger was a wise, if unspectacular, choice. “He’ll be a good transition Pope,” I thought. “He may not serve long, but he can help the papacy move out from under the shadow the of the JP2 legacy. He will make it easier for the Church to move forward with his successor in a few years. He won’t cast too large a shadow himself.”

The Church’s new German Shepherd was instantly vilified by the mainstream media for his faithful orthodoxy. From his time as Prefect of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was widely referred to as “God’s Rottweiler” or “the Vatican’s Pit Bull.” In addition, at 78 years, he was immediately portrayed as simply “too old.” Those who criticized the final years of the John Paul II papacy seemed none too eager to witness what they presumed to be the inactive papacy of a man who would surely soon die. Through this lens, one might have expected Pope Benedict XVI to be a doddering, finger-wagging, aloof curmudgeon.

  • Doddering? Hardly. Pope Benedict XVI traveled extensively within and even outside of Europe, including the United States, Australia, Africa (Cameroon and Angola), South America (Brazil), the Middle East (Jordan, Israel and Palestine), and Turkey. He was more active than anyone could have reasonably expected.
  • Finger-wagging? Try again. Pope Benedict XVI met personally with victims of clergy sexual abuse on multiple occasions. He oversaw the establishment of a personal ordinariate for former Anglicans. He reached out to the Society of St. Pius X with the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, encouraging wider celebration of the Tridentine Mass. He maintained ecumenical dialog with Jews, Muslins, Buddhists, and Hindus. His whole pontificate was one big “Yes!”
  • Aloof? C’mon. Pope Benedict XVI proved to be a superlative teacher, writing extensively in a style that is profound yet clear and concise. I recall seeing the first installment of his Jesus of Nazareth series on a feature table in Barnes & Noble just after its release and thinking, “That happens?” He was accessible.
  • Curmudgeon? Get real. Pope Benedict XVI produced three encyclicals covering such topics as love, charity, and truth, including Spe Salvi (In Hope We Are Saved), which was entirely dedicated to the virtue of hope. Also, he celebrated World Youth Days 2005, 2008, and 2011 with millions of young Catholics from across the globe. The man leaked joy.

Finally, what about that shadow I didn’t expect him to cast? On one episode of EWTN’s Life on the Rock, Fr. Stan Fortuna, CFR referred to John Paul II and Benedict XVI as “the best back-to-back popes since Jesus and Peter.” Also, I recently heard historian James Hitchcock, Ph.D. on Ave Maria Radio’s Kresta in the Afternoon refer to John Paul II and Benedict XVI as the greatest philosopher and the greatest theologian “to sit on the papal throne.” Further, just as Pope John Paul II taught us how to die with dignity, Pope Benedict XVI has taught us how to live with humility in the historic conclusion to his reign as Roman Pontiff. Maybe that B16 shadow is larger than I expected at the time of his election.

Gratias et pacis erit vobiscum, Papa Bene!

How will you remember Pope Benedict XVI? Please leave a comment with your reflection.

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  1. says

    Nicely written, Joel. That time period was a particularly exiting stage in our relationship, wasn’t it? I’m grateful for Pape Bene’s influence on our marriage. He has taught us both in so many ways.

  2. says

    I can relate to the sadness you described when John Paul II died. In my case, as a brand new convert to the Church, I was surprised how sad I felt to hear Pope Benedict XVI was stepping down. Benedict XVI will always be my first introduction to the fatherhood of the Pope, and I am grateful for his humility.

  3. says

    I was confirmed in 2001 at age 24. I know John Paul II paved the way for my path into the Catholic church. Without his affirmation of certain lay movements and his initiation of World Youth Day the Catholic friends who witnessed to me would not have found their own faith. Benedict XVI executed with wisdom and profound deliberation much of what JPII began, creating a deeper fullness to the charismatic outreach John Paul II began. I love them both, but I am excited to hear who God has chosen to be the next Pope, the Pope my four-month-old daughter will grow up with…


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