On New Year’s Eve, the Church lost a truly great shepherd as Pope Benedict XVI completed his earthly journey. Even though I had heard that his health was declining and that he was in his final days, when I read the headline that he had died, I was surprised and saddened to receive the news. At the same time, it provided me an opportunity to recall with gratitude the impact this humble and faithful shepherd has had on my life as a priest.
My first encounter with Pope Benedict was in Rome in 2006. I was there for a sort of personal pilgrimage as I was in the process of applying to the seminary. Somebody had shared with me that there was to be a candlelight prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square on April 2 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the passing of Pope John Paul II. I decided to go, especially since I knew that Pope Benedict was going to be there. As he addressed the crowd that night, although I did not understand what he was saying, there was an overwhelming sense of awe that I was looking upon the leader of the Universal Church. I had followed him pretty closely during his first year as Pontiff, but seeing him in person for the first time was something I will always remember fondly.
Fast forward two years to April 2008 and Pope Benedict was making a visit to the United States. A generous benefactor of the seminary I was attending made it possible for the entire seminary community to travel by bus from St. Louis to New York to see the Pope. There was a special gathering that the Holy Father was to have with seminarians on the grounds of St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, NY. We waited in the sun for a few hours, eagerly anticipating his arrival. When he finally did arrive, he came out on the stage and joyfully greeted the large crowd as we cheered our chief shepherd. I was probably about 20 yards from the stage, and seeing Pope Benedict so close was very powerful. I still do not know how to describe it, but what I felt as he looked at us was that he was a very holy and fatherly figure and his joy at seeing these sons of his was evident and authentic.
In 2011, as a newly ordained priest, I had the joy of travelling with a group of high school students to World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain. At the prayer vigil before the conclusion of the event, more than a million young people gathered in a former airfield waiting for the Holy Father to lead us in prayer. I remember it being extremely HOT that day, with the sun blazing and no shade in sight. As the afternoon drew on, clouds started to form and bad weather was threatening. Most of the group I was with decided to head back to the hotel, as we had a flight the next morning. I expressed my desire to stay, and another chaperone and a couple hearty souls decided to stay with me. A heavy storm rolled through just before the Holy Father was about to lead us in Eucharistic Adoration. I found out later that his advisors encouraged the Holy Father to just cancel the prayer service due to the bad weather, but he was insistent that they continue, though in an abbreviated form. He came out and exposed the Blessed Sacrament. Everybody knelt in adoration, and the silence among the crowd brought me chills. What love this spiritual father showed to his children, not giving up on them and leading them to contemplate the love of God truly present in the Eucharist.
I could say more about how Pope Benedict’s writings before and after becoming Pope has influenced me, but space does not permit me to say all that this spiritual father has meant to me. I thank God profoundly for the gift of his life and ministry, and I pray that the Lord, in His mercy, will grant him what he long desired, to see the Lord face to face.
Eternal rest, grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace!