Pope Benedict XVI’s, writings, lessons in spirituality, and pastoral example have left an indelible mark on the discernment and ministry of priests far and wide – including several Diocesan priests who shared their impressions of him with The Catholic Witness.
As a seminarian at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md., Father Jonathan Sawicki attended the Papal Mass at Nationals Stadium in Washington during Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States in April of 2008. He remembers being joyfully caught up in a surge of seminarians and religious pressing to within ten feet of the Popemobile as it rounded the stadium after Mass.
Three years later, as a priest of the Diocese, Father Sawicki accompanied youth and young adults from St. Francis Xavier Parish in Gettysburg to the pope’s World Youth Day celebration in Madrid. This time around, as a member of the clergy, he was able concelebrate the liturgy with the Holy Father.
This Christmas, Father Sawicki, the Diocese’s Vocations Director, joined his office in gifting current seminarians with “Seek That Which Is Above,” a collection of Pope Benedict’s meditations for various feasts of the Church’s liturgical year.
“Here is what struck me as a seminarian and as a young priest: he was gentle, and his face radiated warmth. Pope Benedict was not at all how the media often portrayed him,” said Father Sawicki, pastor of Prince of Peace Parish in Steelton.
Father Kyle Sahd, pastor of St. Theresa Parish in New Cumberland, was a seminarian at the Pontifical North American College in Rome during Benedict’s papacy, and attended a number of the pope’s weekly audiences.
“Pope Benedict XVI helped form me in seminary by the way he lived his life,” he said.
Father John Kuchinski was also a seminarian at the Pontifical North American College a few months before Pope Benedict’s resignation, yet that brief period left a lasting impression on him.
“I remember our first Sunday Angelus, which was that summer at Castel Gandolfo. We stood in the courtyard, and Benedict addressed the new seminarians from the NAC, encouraging us in our studies in the city of Rome. It was an inspiring way to begin studying theology,” said Father Kuchinski, pastor of Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in York. “I also remember attending his final Wednesday audience in February of 2013, and standing on the rooftop of the NAC the next day to watch the helicopter take him from the Vatican City to Castel Gandolfo…. It was a formative experience to be present at the epicenter of such a significant historical event.”
Imparting the Truth
Recognized as one of the Church’s top theologians, Pope Benedict’s encyclicals, apostolic exhortations and books continue to be a source of refection and study.
Father John Bateman, who serves as pastor of St. Patrick Parish in York, pointed to the “Jesus of Nazareth” series and “The Spirit of the Liturgy” as specific pieces that have had a significant impact on him.
“He was certainly a pope who saw the liturgy as an important aspect of the expression of our faith, and he called us to an authentic and thoughtful celebration of the liturgy,” said Father Bateman, who serves the Diocese as a canonical consultant and Director of the Deacon Formation Program. “His own example of dignity and reverence in the liturgy is one that inspires me, even today, in how I celebrate the Mass and the other Sacraments and liturgies of the Church. His work on ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ reminds us what he always taught – that one does not fall in love with a philosophy or way of life, but a person. His voluminous work helps us to discover who Jesus was and is.”
“I am struck most by his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est,” Father Bateman continued. “I remember preaching when it was first published and noting that few would have expected this to be the title of his first letter as pope. He was so often seen as the doctrinal czar or ‘bulldog’ of the Vatican, that a beautiful reflection on God’s very essence – love – was surprising and revealing.”
“The Spirit of the Liturgy” was the first book Father Sawicki read when he entered the seminary. “It really helped to center me on liturgy being not an expression of the whims and preferences of a community, but of something that the Church receives and offers to God,” he reflected.
He said he turns to “God is Near Us” for mediation and for preaching, especially for homilies during 40 Hours Eucharistic Devotion. During the Christmas season, he reflects on “Images of Hope” and “The Blessing of Christmas” for homilies.
“As a seminarian and as a priest, any of his magisterial writings were clear and provided beautiful points to reflect upon,” Father Sawicki said.
“Pope Benedict XVI was not only a great theologian, he spoke and wrote with clarity, but most of all was a true shepherd,” Father Sahd reflected. “Pope Benedict taught the truth, but with love and a desire to bring the other into a deeper love for Jesus Christ.
Influence on Ministry
From his clarity on Church teaching to his firm stance against the atrocity of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, Pope Benedict’s leadership and his resolve to uphold Church teaching at a time of increasing secularism have left indelible marks.
“His thought that has most invigorated me is his homily just prior to the conclave that elected him, in which he spoke of the ‘dictatorship of relativism,’” Father Bateman remarked. “His words struck and resonated with the experience of people of faith in an ever more secularized world. It is a concept that continues to deserve our serious reflection and impels us to proclaim with clarity the Truth of Jesus Christ and His Gospel.”
He also vividly recalls Pope Benedict’s meeting with victims of clergy sexual abuse during his visit to the United States. “He was the one who clearly stated that it was impossible for any priest who causes such harm to children to remain a priest,” Father Bateman said. “To me, he was very clear and direct and set in motion all the provisions and laws that have since been promulgated.”
Father Sawicki echoed the sentiment. “His Good Friday reflection of 2005, which painfully admitted the filth that was within the Church’s priesthood, told me as a seminarian halfway through studies that the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith ‘got’ the sexual abuse scandals which were tearing through the Church in the United States,” he remarked. “We learned in seminary of the reforms he made to make the removal of offending clerics more straightforward. Unfortunately, I do not believe he has always received proper credit for his own awakening to this problem or for his strong response.”
Father Sawicki said Pope Benedict, above all, has given “clarity and strong reason to the Church’s teaching. I do note our young priests and our seminarians are still beautifully edified and strengthened by his teaching.”
Father Kuchinski recalls the impact then-Cardinal Ratzinger had on him when was in high school, discerning a vocation.
“Pope St. John Paul II died when I was a freshman in high school, and I remember waking up at 4 a.m. so that I could watch his funeral Mass, celebrated at 10 a.m. in Rome. The presider and homilist for that funeral was then-Cardinal Ratzinger. I remember the impact of that moment, as well as his election to the papacy afterwards. I remember that it occurred during a school day, but I had asked my mother to record it for me, and I spent nearly an hour and a half that evening watching the news coverage of his election,” he recalled.
“As I began to discern my own vocation, I remember the influence that he had: I started buying his books in high school even though I would not properly understand them until years later,” Father Kuchinski said. “I never liked how he was sometimes portrayed, and I always saw him as a very gentle, humble and intelligent man.
A Lesson in Sacrifice
We all remember where we were on February 11, 2013, when we heard the shocking news that Pope Benedict had announced his resignation. He was the first pope in nearly 600 years to do so, citing diminishing health. Since that time, he had led a life of prayer and reflection, and had met with and consulted Pope Francis from time to time.
“Certainly his time in deep and intense prayer for the Church during these subsequent nearly ten years has been a witness and example: the continuity of the Office of Peter and the clarity that there is only one pope. Never did he interfere or even offer his opinion about controversial topics. He remained a witness to prayer for and in the Church,” Father Bateman said.
“I am sure being elected pope was the last thing he ever desired, but he sacrificed his desire to return to Germany to help us become saints. Even when he renounced the papacy in 2013, it was a sacrifice. Knowing he did not have the strength to lead the Universal Church, he handed over his burden to the Father,” said Father Sahd. “He teaches us that the world may see us as weak, we are strong only in Christ. Pope Benedict is a true witness to the life of Christ. May he rest in peace!”
Father Bateman never had the opportunity to meet Pope Benedict during his time of service with the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in Rome. But the priest said that ever since the pope’s retirement in 2013, he has prayed an additional “Our Father” when he prays the Rosary – one for the intentions of the Holy Father, and the second for the intentions and health of Pope Benedict.
“Because he was removed from public, his long-suffering was less the witness than that of John Paul’s – but nonetheless, his faithfulness and prayer have been and will continue to be a lasting legacy and witness to the faithful,” he said.
Father Kuchinski said it would be difficult for him to speak to Pope Benedict’s overall legacy, but can attest to his influence in a personal way.
“I know the impact he has had on me, even though he never met me or had any idea who I am,” he said. “His life has encouraged me to take seriously the intellectual aspect of our faith and never to cease learning; he has encouraged me to continue to seek the Lord in prayer; he has encouraged me to be reverent in faithful in the celebration of the Christian mysteries, especially the Mass; and he has set an incredible example of humility, gentleness and kindness.”
(Photos of Pope Benedict’s Mass at Nationals Stadium by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness. Additional photos from Catholic News Agency.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness