With Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s death on New Year’s Eve, many around the world questioned how he will be remembered — as a preeminent theologian; as a major influence on the Vatican for a half century; for his efforts to reach out to other faiths, as a Church leader who faced the decline in vocations and attendance, as well as the handling of numerous cases of sexual abuse by priests; as a pope who surprisingly resigned or a combination of the aforementioned.
Pope Benedict made an impact in his life, and several of the faithful in Arkansas shared how he influenced their lives.
On April 19, 2005, then-Deacon Jason Tyler returned to his room at the Pontifical North American College in Rome to finalize the invitations and prayer cards for his ordination as a priest when he heard the 6 p.m. bells ringing from St. Peter’s Basilica.
“I thought they were ringing the bells for the regular Angelus because it was only the second day of the conclave, but I said I need to turn on my radio just to hear the updates. I turned on my radio; the first words I heard in Italian were ‘unconfirmed smoke.’ I grabbed my jacket, a pair of binoculars, my digital camera and a radio and headphones — we didn’t have them all in a smartphone in those days — and took off,” he said. “What was normally a 10-minute walk, I made in a four-minute sprint. As I arrived in St. Peter’s Square, the last little bit of the white smoke coming out of the chimney.”
After a 45-minute wait, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was introduced as Pope Benedict XVI, the Church’s 256th pontiff.
“There was a huge roar because his was one of the names a lot of us were familiar with,” said Father Tyler, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville and Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Lincoln. “Those of us who had been studying his writings saw it in many ways as the continuation of John Paul II who we had loved so much. It was just an exhilarating feeling to be there when he came out on the balcony for the first time as pope and described himself as ‘a simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.’ When he had his inaugural Mass a few days later, I volunteered and was chosen randomly to help distribute Communion.”
Father Tyler said the moment was surreal because he had previously met the new pope as part of a class that compared writings from the first centuries of the Church with contemporary theology.
“Our professor used Cardinal Ratzinger’s ‘Introduction to Christianity’ as part of the curriculum and arranged an annual meeting for the class with him at the Teutonic College, one of the German seminaries in Vatican City.
“I will remember him as a gentle father who loved the Church and was very clear in his type of teaching.”
Father Andrew Hart, JCL, theological consultant to Arkansas Catholic and adjutant judicial vicar for the Diocese of Little Rock Tribunal, said he has deep admiration for Pope Benedict as a priest and theologian.
“His writings and sermons always displayed a genuine faith, a deep humility and a profound trust in the lord’s providence,” he said.
Father Hart studied at the Pontifical North American College in the Eternal City from 2008 to 2012 and had the pleasure of meeting the pope twice.
“Both times I was struck by his kindness and gentleness,” he said.
Father Hart first met Pope Benedict in 2010 during his school’s 150th anniversary when he invited the students and representatives for an audience in the Apostolic Palace. The second meeting in 2012 was much more intimate. When Bishop Anthony B. Taylor made his ad limina visit in 2012, he invited then-Deacon Hart to join him in meeting Pope Benedict in his papal apartment.
“The bishop can bring along one or maybe two people with him, and he invited me to join him,” he said. “It was very brief, but it was an amazing experience.”
Father Hart said Pope Benedict, who became known as “God’s rottweiler,” gained an unfair reputation when he was head of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith.
“Everybody who ever met him, even people who he was kind of an opponent with so to speak, always found him to be very gracious, kind, never got upset or angry. He was committed to the truth and to the Church's teaching, but personally, he was very humble, very gentle and kind of a shy person. He didn't really like the limelight. He certainly did not want to be pope. It was the other cardinals that saw him as one who could, in some ways, continue to advance the work that Pope John Paul II had done. He accepted the call of the Church and the Holy Spirit, but he would have much preferred to retire and work and write about his intellectual pursuits. He was really, at heart, an academic, a teacher. He was concerned by kind of the growing trends of secularism and what he called ‘the dictatorship of relativism,’ and wanted to draw people's attention back to the Christian faith.”
Father Hart said the pope’s legacy is as much about his work before becoming the pontiff as after.
“He was, arguably, the greatest mind that we've had as pope in 1,000 years — not that John Paul II and others were slouches in any way — but he was a really accomplished, eminent theologian before he ever became bishop, cardinal or pope. He was committed to deepening people's understanding of how we can encounter the mystery of Jesus Christ through the church today.”
“Pope Benedict XVI's influence on me as a monk and priest hinges on his nickname, ‘God's rottweiler,’ said Father Cassian Elkins, OSB, of Subiaco Abbey.
“He was a fierce champion for both the intellectual and liturgical importance of Church tradition,” Father Elkins said. “As a young priest rooted in the monastic tradition, the liturgy is paramount, and his legacy has helped me stay focused on God while the world looks to other sources of self-fulfillment.
“I firmly believe that his legacy will carry on, especially among conservative Catholics. Perhaps, one can hope, his influence on the understanding of the importance of liturgy will greatly contribute to the Church's upcoming Eucharistic Revival.”
Deacon Matt Glover, JCL. diocesan chancellor for canonical affairs, also studied at the Pontifical North American College from 2001 to 2004 and had the chance to meet Cardinal Ratzinger before he became pope.
“He had a reputation throughout his entire life in ministry as being kind of very hard lined, very stern, strict doctrinally and, maybe, leadership wise, but what struck me the most was actually his humility,” Glover said. “My vision of this man was someone who might have been ‘archconservative,’ but when I actually got to speak with him, he was very diminutive, humble and soft spoken. Although he was a theological genius and intellectual giant of our time, his primary love was not just learning for the sake of learning or theology for the sake of theology. His primary love was our lord and his Church. Everything that he did he viewed as a means to love the lord more.
“I think he got, in many ways, an unfair reputation when he was head of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith as being a hardliner. I think most people were struck by just how gentle of a person he was, which kind of flies in the face of how he's portrayed in the media or other theological or Catholic circles that just, frankly, sometimes didn't like him.”
Glover said Pope Benedict’s theological contributions to the Church were immense.
“The number of lives that he has touched through his writings cannot be under or overestimated,” he said. “That goes from individual members of the faithful to seminarians studying theology to Canon lawyers working in the areas of theology and canon law. You can't do any serious work in the area of theology without dealing with his work. It's hard to comprehend having lived a life that's that impactful.”
Glover said some of Pope Benedict's most important work was “Jesus of Nazareth.”
“There's a lot of good theology in it, but it's a lot of personal and spiritual reflection on who Jesus is, and why getting to know Jesus and building a personal relationship with Jesus is so critical to what it means to be a Christian and who we are as Catholics. To people who have never studied theology, they're very accessible, very readable. Pope Benedict really shows his true colors in those books, and I think those books really surprised a lot of people because of how gentle and personable he comes across.”
While some have speculated that Pope Benedict may be considered for sainthood and possibly being named a doctor of the Church, Glover warned against moving too hastily.
“In the area of Church that I work in, I would be cautious in this day and age to start pushing for titles like that or canonization too soon after a pope passes away,” he said. “The test for whether or not someone really should be considered a doctor of the Church is whether or not their contributions have long-lasting impact beyond just the immediate people that lived during their own time period. Two hundred or 300 years from now, are people still reading Pope Benedict’s writings? That really shows that the Holy Spirit is confirming this reality about somebody for sainthood, being a doctor of the Church or whatever the case may be. I think that the only way in the current day and age to answer a question like that well is to say we'll have to wait and see.”
Father John Antony, JCL, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith and Our Lady of the Ozarks Shrine in Winslow, who has studied Pope Benedict’s writings, said in eulogy for the deceased pontiff, “I think that is the underlying and overarching point in all the pope’s writings is God is alive, we know him in Jesus, and that gives meaning to our lives….In the days and weeks to come you will hear many commentaries and opinions about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Some people will only see him as a conservative or traditionalist who tried to turn back the clock to a pre-Vatican II Church. Others will say he disagreed with Pope Francis and create some rivalry. Still others will focus on the pope’s management of the Church during the sexual abuse crisis. And all those perspectives will contain some kernel of truth and validity. We are all complex characters. But I think they will all miss the mark of the pope’s deepest purpose as a Christian and as a priest. He simply wants the world to know there is a God, and we see his adorable face in Jesus Christ. And if we can keep our eyes on him, then eventually everything else will be OK.”
While he never had the chance to meet Pope Benedict XVI, Jeff Hines, diocesan faith formation director, said he was a fan because of how the pope embraced his role as teacher.
“He left us some tremendous legacies that influence catechesis today, most notably having overseen the development of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In catechesis, we are just now implementing the directions he gave us, leading with this statement from his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person.’”
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