By the time you are reading this, you likely already know that Pope Benedict XVI died last week at the age of 95. Benedict was the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics until he resigned the papacy in 2013. When Pope Francis took over the Holy See later that year, Benedict took on the title Pope Emeritus. He then lived within the walls of Vatican City for the remainder of his life.
I must admit that my feelings about Benedict, known as Joseph Ratzinger prior to his elevation to the papacy, are complex to say the least. As many of you know, I was a practicing Roman Catholic until only about 12 years ago. The time of Benedict’s papacy served as the catalyst for me to leave the Roman Church and go “church shopping”, ultimately landing in the Episcopal Church. Although I blamed his leadership for my departure at the time, I now understand that Benedict is not truly culpable for my decision. I now recognize I had a lot of pain in my heart for a number of reasons. I experienced a tremendous amount of painful family dysfunction within my very devoutly Roman Catholic family. I also was going through a divorce and did not feel welcome at the communion table when I needed it the most, as I would hear priests preach about divorced persons dwelling within a perpetual state of sin and “unworthy” to receive communion. I did not think it was necessary to restore traditions that had gone by the wayside for decades (traditions like fancy red shoes for the pontiff and the elevation of the Tridentate Latin Mass). I did not think he handled the allegations of child sex abuse by members of the clergy properly. I did not appreciate his focus on condemning the LGBTQ+ community. There was a perfect storm of spiritual chaos in my life that led me to seek the love of Jesus elsewhere. I am very fortunate that I have found what I needed in the Episcopal Church and I am happy to be a faith leader in this church, surrounded by an amazing congregation of believers at St. John’s who truly walk the walk even more than they talk the talk.
I am happy to say that I was able to reach a time of reconciliation with my feelings about Roman Catholicism when I attended seminary and graduate school, studying at three Roman Catholic institutions of higher learning along the way. The seminary I attended, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, is part of a consortium of seminaries and theology schools known as the Graduate Theological Union (which itself also functions as a standalone university). Berkeley seminarians can take courses from the other GTU institutions, and we are actually encouraged to do so. I took a number of my classes for my Master of Divinity program from Roman Catholic institutions including Jesuit School of Theology (which is part of Santa Clara University) and the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. I later completed an additional graduate degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Ratzinger’s 66 books, three encyclicals, and four apostolic exhortations are some of the most important and frequently-referenced materials we studied in seminary and in graduate school. Through his writings, I learned he was truly a man who loved Jesus Christ and wanted everyone to do the same. His writings were often times above my own level of comprehension and I learned that he understood things differently than most of the rest of us. I gained a new respect for the man who had driven me away from the church of my childhood. By studying the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, I discovered that my own understandings of the man who would later become Pope Benedict XVI were complicated.
Suffice it to say, Joseph Ratzinger was one of the most brilliant theologians in the Christian Church in recent memory. He was a professor of theology at the University of Bonn, the University of Tubingen, and the University of Regensburg. Because of his impressive resume and extensive education, he at one time was invited by the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh to become a theology professor at Notre Dame. He turned down this offer because he did not believe his English skills were strong enough. He participated in the Second Vatican Council and he was elevated to the role of Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977. Under his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, Ratzinger served as a close confidant and advisor, and he was elevated to Cardinal in 1993. Upon John Paul II’s death in 2005, Ratzinger was seen as a frontrunner for election in that year’s papal conclave. He was elected pope on the fourth ballot and took the name Benedict XVI a month after John Paul II’s death.
During Benedict’s papacy, he did what I thought was amounting to pushing back the clock on the church he led. He focused on complex theological concepts and promoted conservative Christian theology. I believed his focus was negligent about the pastoral implications of the people he served. Although I now believe his teachings likely came from a good place, I also understand that these same teachings caused emotional (and even physical) pain to many Christians and other people of God. I do think much healing took place after he made the decision to become the first pope to resign in over 500 years. Where Benedict was first and foremost a theologian, I believe Francis to be primarily a pastor. Through reading his books and studying about him, I have reconciled many of my own feelings with Benedict, whom I now understand to be a very intelligent and scholarly man. I admire his decision to resign when he knew he was not able to serve the church effectively and I admire his decision to stay out of the spotlight and to allow Francis to lead as he saw fit.
Here at St. John’s, we join the faithful around the world in lifting up our prayers for Benedict and we offer thanks for his long and fulfilling life. We can be assured that God knows his heart, and we can presume that his heart was good. This is true even if you, like me, do not agree with everything Benedict did or taught when he was in a position of authority. In a strange way, I’m thankful for Benedict’s papacy. Had he not been such a conservative theologian, I may not have decided to join the Episcopal Church. This means I would not be a priest today. And it means I would not be serving here among you at St. John’s. May his soul and the souls of all the departed by the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.