|Cardinal Ratzinger meets a young theology student during his visit to the|
Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., in January of 1990.
Pope Benedict XVI. Josef Ratzinger. How can I even begin to fathom what this man has given to me? He has been a guiding and teaching presence in the Church for the whole of my adult life.
Remember, Cardinal Ratzinger came to Rome to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981. I was 18 years old, and a freshman in college. By the time I figured out that I wanted to study theology, he was already well established as a figure of authority.
For a great part of my adult life, the overall reference point for the mind of the Church was "the Pope...and Cardinal Ratzinger." They worked with an exquisite harmony, and with a remarkable complementarity of temperament and method, in what must have been one of the truly great friendships of Christian and human history.
It was very hard for a person like me to study academic theology in the 1980s. There were ideas everywhere, and a lot of these ideas sought to reinterpret Christianity and reduce it to the limits of various human ideologies. But there were also great insights, real theological development that was (and still is) being patiently and carefully discerned and incorporated into the teaching of the Church. The profound intelligence, learning, and above all the ecclesial sense of Cardinal Ratzinger helped to steer the Church through these deep and often strange waters.
For me and many others who became Catholic theologians during this period, he was a touchstone and an outstanding example. He showed us that the theologian must be above all a homo ecclesiasticus, a "man or woman of the Church." He showed us that true "openness" was the openness of a faith lived out in the communion of the Church, and that the teaching of the Church was not an oppressive domination, but rather a loving service to the sustenance of this communion. He showed us this by his clarity, his humility, his patience, and by the fact that he was sacrificing himself every day to carry out the Church's teaching mission, to bear the often misunderstood authority and responsibility entrusted to him out of love for Jesus and love for the Church.
Just by watching him, we learned that the Church was a living reality, and that "fidelity to Catholic teaching" was not a matter of politics, but a matter of being faithful to a real relationship with Jesus, and adhering to His continual presence within the ecclesial communion. For anyone who was looking and listening, it was clear that his commitment was not just to some thing or some task, but to Someone.
Remember, I'm talking about Cardinal Ratzinger. Nobody ever dreamed he would be Pope someday.
The picture above recalls an event that I shall always treasure. The American branch of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family first opened in the beautiful Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. I was already a lay student with the Pontifical Faculty at DHS, which was still an unusual thing in the 1980s (now they have a whole program for lay people, of course). The JPII Institute brought in a lot of lay students, and enriched the atmosphere of this unique place.
In January of 1990, Cardinal Ratzinger was in Washington and he came to give a talk to the new JPII Institute. The audience was restricted to people associated with the Institute, and of course the Dominican faculty and its students. The great old chapel was nevertheless bursting with people, and Ratzinger delivered a profound, erudite, and magnificently balanced assessment of the problems and the possibilities of Liberation Theology.
Then he invited the students to an informal discussion, and we moved to a large but still intimate classroom, Aquin Hall. There we had a chance to meet him and shake his hand, and--of course--get photographed. Indeed, that clean shaven fellow with hair on his head is me, 23 years ago. Cardinal Ratzinger was shy and courteous. A handshake and a greeting. No small talk. He was a shy and simple man.
Then the students were seated and the questions began, and something happened! The "professor in him" came alive. The session was spontaneous and vibrant, and he was fully caught up in it. The classroom. It was clear that this was what he loved to do. Faith seeking understanding; faith and reason integrated in the heart of a man. He loved being with the students. "Archbishop" and "Cardinal Prefect" were not his idea. The Bavarian priest and professor had embraced it all with loving sacrifice.
It was a great joy to spend this time with him, these moments in which we caught a glimpse of his dynamic and serene heart. It looked like they had to drag him away, finally. I think he would have been happy to stay up until 2:00 AM with us. But he had stayed long enough to show us that in following Jesus, self-sacrifice is transformed into an abundant gift. None of us could have imagined how great that gift would become, fifteen years later....
Pope Benedict XVI, thank you for a lifetime of following Christ in His Church. Jesus has blessed you. He gave you a great classroom, the whole world, and you have been a wonderful teacher. And now he is calling you to offer everything, yet again, and to begin an unprecedented journey into the contemplative heart of the Church. In passing on the office of St. Peter, you are bearing witness to the world that "the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven" are not given for personal self-exaltation, or domination of some over others, or oppression, or any power that we can measure and define in the terms of this world. Instead you are showing us that the communion of God's people is sustained by trust in Jesus, by faith and love and confidence in His promise that He will always be with us.