Others have written beautifully about the legacy of Joseph Ratzinger and his tenure as Pope Benedict XVI. For me, two couplets will always capture the essence of the man: faith and reason, realism and hope. He understood that without the discipline of faith, reason degrades into an instrument of power; and without the discipline of reason, faith becomes a collection of empty pieties. He also understood that optimism is a mood, not a virtue. Optimism is not hope. Christians need a healthy, and often hard, realism about the world and human nature, but also an ultimate trust in God’s salvific love for humanity.
Those are my thoughts. My feelings are more confused, a mixture of grief and apprehension. I will very much miss Benedict's influence in the Church, which endured even in his retirement. His quiet presence gave me confidence that his teaching was still alive in our turbulent times. It will be easier for some to deny or ignore those teachings now that Benedict is gone. So I’ll miss the consolation of his living presence in the Church.
The first time I met him personally, I was a young bishop in the Diocese of Rapid City. I had taken an active part in the USCCB debates about liturgical translations. I was concerned that the poor translations from the Latin were not just poor translations but were also efforts to put aside some of the difficult teachings of the Church—like the permanent virginity of Mary, with St. Joseph being referred to as simply her spouse rather than as the “spouse of the virgin.” I was in Rome for a meeting and asked for a meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I remember being very nervous when I arrived, but he welcomed me with warmth and humility and gave me both good advice and whole-hearted encouragement to understand that all bishops were equally teachers of the faith, and not just bishops from major dioceses. He also offered the support of his staff in dealing with various issues arising at the time.
Years later, as an archbishop, I traveled to Milan for the announcement that Philadelphia would be the next location for the World Meeting of Families. I had the privilege of sharing a table with Benedict and a military family from the United States. He was wonderfully gracious. He spoke to everyone and was very kind to the children. I’d heard that he liked orange Fanta soda and saw that it was true—a big pitcher of it was on the table. It was like sharing a meal with a member of one’s own family. Though shy, the pope was always very kind and willing to do whatever was necessary to make others comfortable.
I also remember my ad limina visit as archbishop during Benedict’s pontificate. I met him along with the four auxiliary bishops of Philadelphia. I had asked the auxiliaries to share the task of presenting our material, so each of us delivered a portion of the oral report. Pope Benedict listened attentively to all five of us. He said nothing and took no notes. After I finished the final part of the report, the pope responded by giving a brilliant summary of each one of the five parts with his own commentary and suggestions—all from memory, and every element of his response was astute and pastorally on target. It was an astonishing experience. Benedict was simply the most intelligent person I’ve ever met—not only in his understanding but also in his articulation, and clearly a candidate to one day be a Doctor of the Church.
I also remember when Pope Benedict appointed me as one of the “visitators” of the Legion of Christ after the abuse committed by its founder became public. Six bishops from around the world were given this task, and at the end of the process we gathered to meet with Benedict to summarize our reports and answer questions. He took our reports very seriously and then sought our advice on what ought to be done about the future of the Legion. He hadn’t made up his mind in advance and was thoroughly fraternal in his approach. His handling of this ugly and painful situation exemplified collaborative ministry between a pope and bishops in service to the truth and to the Church and her members.
The voice and witness of Joseph Ratzinger will be very sorely missed in the life of the Church—perhaps especially because of the current quality of her intellectual life. But were he here, he might remind us of words he wrote more than half a century ago, words which remain just as vividly true today: “Faith is not primarily a colossal edifice of numerous supernatural facts . . . but an assent to God, who gives us hope and confidence.” At its core, “faith is not a system of knowledge, but trust.” And God does not abandon his people.
Charles J. Chaput, a Capuchin Franciscan, is the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia.
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Image by Propstei Paring licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.