December 31, 2022

Reflecting on the life and ministry of Benedict XVI

(En espanol)

Archbishop Charles C. ThompsonAt age 95, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI passed from earthly life into eternal life on Dec. 31, 2022.  It is an occasion to reflect on the long life and ministry of a truly holy and brilliant servant of God. Some have even referred to him as the most intellectual of all the popes.

Pope Benedict XVI appointed me as Bishop of Evansville in 2011, where I served for six years before being named by Pope Francis as Archbishop of Indianapolis in 2017. I met Pope Benedict XVI on two occasions, the first time was shortly after I was ordained a bishop and the second time was during my first ad limina visit.  He always struck me as very reserved and rather shy in demeanor. His decision to retire as pope in 2013, the first in centuries, was an incredible act of courage and humility.

I have often thought of Pope Benedict XVI as an excellent catechist, and Pope Francis as an excellent evangelist. Pope Francis often quoted Pope Benedict XVI, as well as Pope Paul VI. Despite media attempts to create some type of narrative of them as polar opposites, I believe that their affection and admiration for one another was quite genuine. In fact, they displayed a very complementary relationship.

My favorite quote from Pope Benedict XVI is from his December 2005 encyclical “Deus caritas est” (“God is Love”): “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (#1). Authentic discipleship for Pope Benedict XVI, as for Pope Francis, begins with a personal encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. Each time we celebrate Mass, we encounter the events of his passion, death and resurrection.

Prior to being elected pope in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II. It is said that he twice tried to resign from the position to return to pastoral or academic ministry in a less notable way. Both times, Pope John Paul II reportedly asked him to continue as prefect. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was a dedicated, loyal son of the Church. No doubt, he accepted his election as pope in a rather reluctant but loyal manner.

I suspect that Pope Francis will miss Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI more than the world, and most in the Church, will ever know. Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to retire made it possible for Pope Francis to be elected. Had he not retired and continued until his death, it is hard to imagine that an 86-year-old Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio would be elected in 2023. It is our Catholic belief that the Holy Spirit inspires papal elections. The same Holy Spirit that guided the election of previous popes, like St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II, guided the elections of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

Pope Benedict XVI served the Church well in all aspects of his ministry—whether as priest, bishop, cardinal, pope or emeritus pope. He was a good and faithful servant, a loyal son of the Church. May he rest in eternal peace, gazing on the face of God.

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