An old pastor once told me that many priests enjoy a special relationship with the man serving as Pope when they were in the seminary. At least in the contemporary period, it is true that precisely at the time when a man is thinking over whether he is called to be a priest, the one who occupies the Chair of Peter can play an important role. I first discovered the grace of a priestly vocation during the pontificate of John Paul II. I have ministered as a priest almost entirely while Pope Francis has served as Sovereign Pontiff. But my entire time in the seminary was under Benedict XVI. Precisely in those years preparing for priestly service it was Benedict who offered my classmates and me such good example. Three lessons come to mind.
First, I will cherish Benedict’s humility. Msgr Guido Marini served as Master of Ceremonies for most of Benedict’s pontificate. Many people would recognize him standing next to the Pope and assisting him at Holy Mass. Someone asked Msgr Marini once what he learned most from Pope Benedict about how to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. He said: “The priest must fade into the background.”
Benedict taught him—and us—that the personality of the priest isn’t what’s so important. The real matter at hand is the mystery we celebrate. Jesus and His Church are what’s most important. The priest stands at the service of the sacred mysteries. As best he can, he should get out of the way. Benedict taught future priests they are not the center of attention. The sacred liturgy should never be confused for the priest’s personal show. Benedict taught us that Christ is the one to whom we should turn our gaze. The rest of us should fade into the background.
Second, I will always cherish Benedict’s love of the truth. In 1977 when he was made Archbishop of Munich and Fresing, Joseph Ratzinger chose as his episcopal motto “Co-Workers of the Truth.” Many people labor under the illusion that the truth will somehow restrict their freedom. It won’t. Benedict knew well the words of Christ: “The truth will set you free.” Only the truth has grace. Only the truth sets free. Joseph Ratzinger spent his life helping people come to know the truth about Christ and His Church, about how to live and how to love, the Truth who alone sets free.
For one preparing to be a priest, it was a special grace to see in Benedict XVI the freedom which comes from the knowledge of the truth of the Gospel. It is quite rare in the history of the Church but with Benedict XVI the Church enjoyed the grace that the towering intellect on the world stage occupied the Chair of St. Peter the fisherman. Even if they didn’t always agree, the world saw in Benedict XVI—in his clarity of teaching, in the conviction of his faith—that the Church still holds fast to the Gospel of Christ. Christians still believe that in Jesus Christ the God of Heaven has taken on a human face.
Third, I will always cherish Benedict’s gentleness. He liked to say that every teaching of the Church of Christ can be explained gently. We should propose the full truth of the Gospel without corner cutting. And we should always do so gently—because that is how God treats us. After all, we are gentle with those we love.
I think of Benedict often at this time of year. A journalist asked him once, “What do you say to people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter?” He replied: “The Church has to be there for those people too.” Benedict XVI taught that we have got to be the Church of ‘Yes,’ not the Church of ‘No.’ Christianity is a positive proposal, not simply a rejection of the world. He showed us that clarity of teaching and firmness of faith do not conflict with but in fact demand gentleness of expression.
As Bishop Tobin said last week, Benedict XVI was a great and good man. We thank God for the gift he was to the Church and the world. We will miss him and are grateful for him. The Church has been blessed with so many excellent popes throughout the centuries. Historians will make judgments about the lasting legacy of Benedict XVI. For my part, I can say I will always count it a special blessing to have spent my years in the seminary under his humble, theologically rich, and gentle pastoral care.
Father Connors serves as Professor of Moral Theology at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.
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