On 19 April 2005 I made it into Piazza San Pietro just as smoke was coming out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. It was a grey cloudy day, so it was hard to make out whether the smoke was white or black. The bells were supposed to ring to announce the election of the successor to John Paul II, but nothing happened, so we were all confused. The Piazza began to fill with more and more people, seminarians, sisters and laypeople running down the Via della Conciliazione as fast as they could. The atmosphere was electric, because we all knew that we were going to participate in something historic.
Rome had been my home for almost seven years by that point. I had moved there after graduating from Christendom College because I wanted to live in the heart of Christendom, close to the Holy Father. I also was desperate to find my place in the Church, to find my vocation. When I entered seminary a year after my move to the Eternal City, I passed through the portals of the Roman Major Seminary, the house of formation for the Diocese of Rome. I was bonded to Rome, to Peter and to the Church, and began to find my place in the Church and in the world.
Those were the declining years of John Paul II’s reign. I had several opportunities to meet and serve the Pope, and I was always awed in his presence. To see him so sick and suffering, but carrying on as he did, was amazing. But there was another figure who had always been close to me: Joseph Ratzinger. Even as I was always close to John Paul II, it was Ratzinger who inspired me from an early age. I had read Vittorio Messori’s The Ratzinger Report when I was in high school, and at college read deeply from the rich canon of Ratzinger’s theological works. I knew that to be steeped in Ratzinger’s thought was not always to make oneself appreciated.
Shortly after I entered the seminary, Ratzinger’s long awaited The Spirit of the Liturgy came out. I had devoured all of his other writings on the liturgy, and longed to see how his teaching on the sacred liturgy and music could be lived in the heart of the Church. But the other seminarians warned me that to identify myself too closely with Ratzinger was “career suicide.” All I had ever wanted to be was a parish priest anyway, so I was not worried about that. Yet I was a New Man at the seminary and so I exchanged the Ignatius Press cover of that seminal work for a 1970s bookcover of the encyclicals of Paul VI. Needless to say, I fooled no one. That book sparked endless discussion at the seminary, in favor and against, and I increasingly began to imbibe the Ratzingerian view of the world, the Church and theology. A professor at the Gregorian nicknamed me Ratzinger because I always invoked his name, a moniker of which I was humbled and proud, even if it was meant as a light-hearted jab.
For a seminarian in Rome in the early years of the Third Millennium, Ratzinger was a formidable personage. I heard him speak several times, and wanted so much to spend hours in a room picking his brain on so many things. The only regret that I take with me from those years in Rome is that I was so struck by his humility I could never bring myself to crowd around him like the others did. But my devotion was total. From time to time, I would serve the early Masses at St Peter’s Basilica, and come across the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith as he ambled across the Piazza to go to to work. And I always shouted out, Buon giorno, Eminenza! hoping one day to serve him in some capacity.
After John Paul II’s death, Ratzinger’s presence, quiet, serene and hopeful, dominated the Roman scene. I participated in so many Masses both for the mourning for the passing of the only Pope I had never known and the election of the next Peter. As the cardinals filed by, there were sounds of enthusiasm from the faithful. But whenever Ratzinger walked by, the sound was deafening. If vox populi, vox Dei had any weight with the porporati at all, they could not have ignored the visible and audible response of the People of God to the Bavarian theologian.
He is a theologian of incomparable stature. When the Bishop of Charleston assigned me to study dogmatic theology for my license, it was not my first choice. I had never thought of it before; I wanted to be a liturgist. But in Ratzinger I uncovered the fact that liturgy, and its reform and restoration, finds its deepest meaning in the Christ which dogmatic theology encounters in awe and wonder. Dogma became the academic road ecclesiastical obedience laid out for me, and it bound me even more to the man who would be elected as the Successor to St Peter.
I cannot adequately describe what I felt to hear the word Joseph as the Dean proclaimed the new Pope. I knew it had to be him. I knew for weeks it had to be him. I count the day of his election as one of the happiest of my life, because it was so personally significant to me. A man who had inspired me to be a priest, a theologian and a Christian engaged with both the Tradition and the modern world at the same time now reigned from the Throne of the Fisherman.
The Mass of the Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry and his Enseatment at the Lateran Basilica were moments of pure joy for me. I wanted to call them coronation and enthronement, they were so glorious. But more impressive than the ceremonies surrounding these historical events I was privileged to take a part in, was listening to him teach as Peter. Clear, distinct, and poetic all at the same time. A master class with one of the greatest professors in human history was being offered to all of humanity, if we would just listen and learn.
During the Mass at the Lateran Basilica, I was given the great honor to distribute Holy Communion. I was upset, however, to discover that I was to go all the way outside of the Basilica and down the Piazza and out into the streets to perform my appointed task. Selfishly, I balked at the idea of not being able to participate in the end of a liturgy which meant so much for me. But as I looked back at the grand doors of the Mother and Head of all the Churches of the City and the World, carrying Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament in my hands, I was flooded with a sense of completion. Formed close to the heart of the Church, I was imbued with spirit of Eternal Rome, the vision of Pope Benedict XVI and the mission of the fishermen. It would not do for me to tarry around Rome while the man I revered as my greatest Teacher made the world into his classroom. Like any good student, I had to go back into my mission field to hand on what I had received.
The only Pope I have ever named in the Canon has been Benedict. Today, the day on which he announces his resignation, I offered the Ordinary Form in English and said his name like I have every day of my priesthood. I offered that Mass, on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, and prayed for him, knowing he was sick, and all the sick on this World Day dedicated to them. After Mass, I discovered the news by text message from a friend I had called from the Piazza on Election Day. Later that day, I offered the Extraordinary Form in Latin. I’m not sure if what I did was rubrically correct, but to the prayers of this day’s feast I added the prayers for the Pope. And I freely admit how hard it was for me to say that name that I have pronounced every day since my Ordination shortly after his election with such gratitude.
I am a priest of the Benedict XVI Generation.
The way that I approach theology, liturgy, preaching, pastoral life, everything, has been profoundly influenced by this amazing man. I will always thank God for his constant presence in my life, and in the lives of those I touch because of his example to me. I have enough sentiment in me to want to write the Holy Father personally to tell him all this, but I know that he will never receive it. But even in that he continues to teach me.
Few understood the rich symbolism involved when Benedict XVI visited the grave of the oft misunderstood Celestine V and placed his pallium upon it in 2009. Now, in hindsight, it comes across as a prophetic moment. As the Sovereign Pontiff, our sweet Christ on Earth, transitions into a life of prayer and penance, in a hidden Nazareth within the walls of the Vatican, he shows us that the Church belongs to Christ. The sign of the mustard seed becomes a reality in the 265th successor to St Peter.
In 1996, in his famous interview with Peter Seewald, he said, Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world – that let God in.
It is the hallmark of a man who practices what he preaches. Pope Benedict XVI shows us the way by example of how to live as a Christian in a world increasingly hostile to the Gospel and the Church: as mustard seeds of faith. He may not know it until the Final Judgment, but Joseph Ratzinger has inspired countless young men and women, priests, religious and laypeople to be just like those mustard seeds. We are privileged that he has shown us the way. Viva il Papa!