Have you met the Pope? I’ve had only the jumbotron introduction, having attended the Mass he celebrated at Nationals Stadium in April, 2008. Apart from that, the closest I’ve come is two degrees of separation. The friend of a friend once had the experience of recognizing then-Cardinal Ratzinger in St. Peter’s Square. Approached to ask for a picture, the future Pope did not understand that he was a celebrity being asked to pose, and instead tried to take my friend’s picture as any tourist might have asked of any passer-by!
Limited brushes with greatness can’t paint a full portrait. Still, I feel I know the man through his writing and preaching. He is, in spite of his reputed introversion, remarkably candid and personal –much more so than his predecessor, I think. (I say this by way of comparison, not as criticism.)
In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, when John Paul the Great is asked about his prayer life, the lovely, edifying response comes in the third person. He’s teaching us about the office of Pope. When Cardinal Ratzinger is asked a similar question in God and the World, he responds not with a lesson, but with a window into his own life of prayer. We learn that he’s restless in prayer: that he loves the rosary, but rarely prays more than two decades at a time, preferring to punctuate his day with a few decades here and there.
Though not a prankster (we can’t imagine Benedict XVI mugging for the camera as John Paul sometimes did to please crowds of youth), he delights in word play, gentle situational humor and irony. He created the moniker “the German Shepherd” for himself, in an audience with Bavarian pilgrims. He affectionately “blames” his guardian angel for not preventing the fall that broke his wrist this summer. In Benedict of Bavaria, Brennan Purcell recalls the Pope’s response when a journalist asked why his memoir didn’t mention women or romantic relationships. “I had to keep the manuscript to 100 pages” came the deadpan reply.
Arguably the most erudite figure of our time, a charming simplicity shines through his speeches and homilies. Without sacrificing his authority, there’s an unmistakable, “let’s look at this together” tone in his homilies, and he is capable of wonder at simple things: music, time spent outdoors, friendship.
More notably, he is disarmingly simple and realistic in acknowledging the difficulties posed by faith. In a recent Q& A with priests, for example, while encouraging them to see the supernatural value of suffering, he didn’t pretend the attitude came easily:
“It is always difficult to suffer. I remember Cardinal Mayer's sister. She was seriously ill and when she became impatient he said to her: "You see, now you are with the Lord." And she answered him: "It is easy for you to say so because you are healthy, but I am suffering my "passion'.”
Here again we see the Pope’s humor; I imagine everyone laughed at that anecdote, but he continued, more seriously: “It is true, in a true "passion" it becomes ever more difficult to be truly united with the Lord and to maintain this disposition of union with the suffering Lord. Let us therefore pray for all who are suffering and do our utmost to help them, to show our gratitude for their suffering and be present to them as much as we can, to the very end.”
His homilies are easy to read and understand, and never shy away from the toughest questions of faith. “Why does this matter?” “How is this relevant?” “Why do we bother with this?” There’s no objection a skeptic can raise that this Pope doesn’t himself raise first. We get the distinct impression he’s wrestled with these very questions and is passing along something he has lived.
In his first homily as Pope he dared to ask, “If we open ourselves totally to [Christ], are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? … Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom?” Because he is fearless and understands our interior battles so well, he convinces us when he answers, “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything.”
On the journey of faith, Benedict XVI is good company.