By Fr. Thom Hennen
As it did to the rest of the world, the news of the pope’s resignation came as quite a surprise to me. This truly historical (if not unprecedented) event gave me pause to think about this man: Pope Benedict XVI.
As a young Catholic and a young priest, I have felt more of a personal connection with Pope Benedict than with previous popes. I was just one month old at the time of Pope Paul VI’s death, almost two months old at the election of John Paul I, and just a little over three months old when John Paul II was elected. So, needless to say, the pope I knew for most of my life was Blessed John Paul II. Of course, I also felt a very strong connection to him, especially after attending World Youth Day in 1993 in Denver. I was then privileged to be in seminary at the North American College in Rome during the waning years of John Paul II’s pontificate and was, as a student priest, present for his funeral and in St. Peter’s Square when Pope Benedict was announced.
Prior to Pope Benedict’s election, it was not uncommon to see then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger walking down the street with his briefcase on his way to or from work. On one occasion some friends visiting from home and I even stopped him and introduced ourselves. He politely greeted us and asked where we were from before wishing us a good day and continuing on his way. In contrast to the common caricature of him at the time as a 7-foot German wearing a monocle and spiked helmet, goose-stepping across St. Peter’s Square, he was slight in build, gentle and even grandfatherly, with a genuine smile and a soft, somewhat high-pitched voice (which, in time, we would all come to know).
Every Thursday morning Cardinal Ratzinger celebrated Mass in the chapel at the Teutonicum (the German college located just inside Vatican City). My third-year seminar class from the Gregorian University attended one of these Masses and was able to meet with him briefly afterwards. Our teacher mentioned to him that for class we had been reading his homilies on creation and the Fall and were discussing the problem of original sin, to which he quipped, “Ah, yes. It’s a big problem.”
On the afternoon he was elected I remember running to St. Peter’s Square with a number of my classmates. Storeowners closed their shops and motorists parked their cars and motorini (motor scooters) on the sidewalk to get to the square in time for the announcement. Not sure that this wasn’t just another “false alarm” (the previous two ballot burns were “black,” not “white” smoke), we waited to see if the giant bells on the façade of St. Peter’s would toll (the sure signal that a pope had been elected). When they began to slowly creak back and forth, the crowd went wild.
One of my friends in another part of the square that day told me later about a conversation he had with an elderly Italian woman standing next to him. She asked him, “Who do you want for pope?” He answered very piously and diplomatically, “Whoever the Holy Spirit chooses,” but she said in Italian, “I want Ratzinger. The others seem a little shady to me.”
When the senior “Cardinal Deacon” came out on the balcony for the formal announcement in Latin we waited with bated breath to hear the first name of the chosen cardinal: Josephum, Joseph! Immediately, I began to scan the list of papabili (“pope-able” candidates) in my head to think of who had the first name of Joseph. Of course, it could only be one man: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I was completely shocked. I never thought he had a chance. I thought he was too old (78 at the time) and that he was seen as too controversial a figure.
That evening, the priests and seminarians at the North American College were jubilant (though, we had heard of much less enthusiastic responses back home) and the student lounge posted extended hours. We had, after all, read much of Cardinal Ratzinger’s work and admired him as a theologian and as the man chosen by John Paul II to be his principle teacher for so long, despite at least one attempt to resign as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
I think Pope Benedict surprised us all: in his election, in his gentle manner, in his concern for a broad spectrum of issues, and in his personal charisma (despite constant comparisons to his predecessor). He surprised us once again with the announcement of his resignation. I, for one, will miss him. And yet, I am reminded of the continuity of the Church and trust that his successor will be Spirit chosen and will be endowed with the gifts necessary to continue to lead the Church as “servant of the servants of God” in the third millennium.
(Fr. Thom Hennen is director of vocations for the Diocese of Davenport.)