I regret to inform you, there has been a death in the family. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died today at the age of 95. After 71 years of priesthood, 45 years as a bishop, eight years as pope, and nine years as pope emeritus, this faithful servant of God has finally made his way to heaven.
I remember when he was elected pope in 2005. I confess I received the news with mixed emotions. Not because I didn’t think he would do a good job, but because he was going to succeed John Paul II who was the pope of my youth and one of my personal heroes. How could anyone fill the shoes of a man who for me was bigger than life? Well, I was impressed with how Benedict did it… he simply brought his own shoes.
And he did it quite literally. Pope Benedict, being a man well-versed in and passionate of the traditions of the Catholic Church, started wearing red shoes after being elected pope. At first, I thought it was odd, who wears red shoes? What kind of fashion statement was he trying to make? I thought only the devil wore Prada (they weren’t Prada shoes, for the record). But Benedict told a story with these shoes that made so much sense when I read about it. It was his way of expressing a conviction that the Church stands on the blood of the martyrs. It was the radical testimony of thousands upon thousands of men and women throughout the history of the Church who died for their faith that anchored the Catholic Church. Benedict understood that as chief shepherd and successor of St. Peter as “the rock,” he was a walking billboard for all things Catholic. The shoes were simply one more way to evangelize.
Now, it’s true Benedict did not have the same public persona his predecessor had. The cameras loved John Paul II. Benedict… not so much. I get it. Benedict felt most comfortable in a classroom or sitting at a table reading theology and philosophy. He thrived with the written word and was able to express his true genius with pen and paper. What he lacked on television or on the radio, or in photographs, he made up for a hundredfold in his writings. He was magical and made our Catholic faith, its traditions, the scriptures, and the life of Christ more alive than ever by what he wrote, how he thought, and how he expressed it.
There is so much that he wrote that we should read, but I want to point out one particular work I believe every Catholic at one point or another in their life should read. His trilogy on the life of Christ simply titled “Jesus of Nazareth” is a must for anyone who wants to deepen their relationship with the Son of God. The first volume covers the infancy of Jesus, the second from his baptism to the transfiguration, and the third is his passion, from his entrance into Jerusalem and his resurrection. I read these over a span of a year and I have reread them on retreats, in preparation for homilies, and during prayer. I’m not going to lie, more than most things I have ever studied, these books made me wonder why isn’t everyone a Catholic.
Every chapter, every sentence, and every word is strategically used to express an extraordinary understanding of Jesus without ever once trying to exhaust the mystery of the Christ. With utmost devotion and love, Benedict XVI makes extraordinary connections between the Old and New Testament bringing to life the reality that the New Testament is clearly concealed in the Old and the Old clearly revealed in the New. He gives such praise of our Jewish roots that it awakens a newfound admiration for our Jewish brothers and sisters and the history of Israel. An interesting thing to note is that even though he wrote these books during his papacy, he signed them as Josef Ratzinger, the theologian, and not as Benedict XVI, the pope.
But if you ask me, what most describes the greatness of this man was a decision he made in 2013 when he decided to step down and retire from the papacy. Even though this was a man deeply rooted in the traditions of the Church, he decided to break precedent and retire. Only one time before in the history of the Church had this happened, sometime in the 1400s. How is it possible that a person reaches the height of ecclesiastical power and then simply hands it over? In a world filled with people in power who want to keep it until they pry it from their cold, dead hands, Benedict understood that the needs of the Church far outweighed his own. Benedict understood he could not physically or mentally give the universal Church what it needed and deserved so he stepped down. He quietly retired away from the limelight and fanfare and quietly lived out the rest of his life and priesthood in obscurity.
Now, Benedict XVI has ridden out into the sunset. He leaves behind an extraordinary theological legacy and the Church is better because of him. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure there are many things he wished he would have done differently and better, but he loved Jesus and loved his Church. It is for this reason, in particular, that he most likely heard the Lord this morning say to him, “Welcome home, my good and faithful servant.”
Rest In Peace, your Holiness!