With Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement that he is stepping down, people have been sharing their favorite papal memories. I was privileged to be among the media crew covering his April 2008 apostolic voyage to the United States, when Shepherd One flew into Andrews Air Force Base and he was met by President Bush. Standing in the bleachers by the airstrip, I saw Bush 43 greet the Holy Father on the tarmac and stride proudly beside him toward a secure area, his chest bursting from his shirt. At that moment, it looked like the president was ready to convert to Catholicism.
There were memorable Masses in Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C., and Yankee Stadium in Bronx, N.Y. Everyone was struck by the calm and mild demeanor of Benedict, his welcoming smile and his lively eyes. He looked like a boy seeing the world anew, with hope and wonder. Yet his homilies were filled with deep and engaging thoughts, both personal and professorial in style. It was evident that he was a popular figure with a strong message, unlike so many stars of our day.
Of course, as a Knight of Columbus, I was especially pleased when Pope Benedict spoke of the Order’s founder, Venerable Father Michael McGivney, in his homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Noting the rapid growth of the Catholic Church in the United States, due to the heroic work and zeal of missionaries, priests and laypeople, the pope said, “We need but think of the remarkable accomplishment of that exemplary American priest, the Venerable Michael McGivney, whose vision and zeal led to the establishment of the Knights of Columbus, or of the legacy of the generations of religious and priests who quietly devoted their lives to serving the People of God in countless schools, hospitals and parishes.” The Holy Father had just declared Father McGivney as Venerable a month earlier, recognizing his heroic virtue.
Probably the most moving moment of his trip came in the meeting with young people and seminarians at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie), Yonkers, N.Y. After meeting with disabled young people in the chapel, he toured the spacious seminary grounds in an open vehicle, waving and smiling as the faithful flocked to the railings to get a photo and a closer look. As he walked on to the stage, the crowd let out a thunderous cheer. Benedict waved for a few moments then motioned for everyone to sit down. In his innocence and simplicity, he looked surprised and embarrassed to be the object of such attention and adulation. He repeatedly motioned for people to sit down, but no one budged; they kept standing and clapping and waving and leaping for joy. Benedict looked bewildered over what to do with such a large, uncooperative crowd.
Finally, an aide walked over to him and whispered in his ear. I am sure he said something like, “Holy Father, they will not settle down before you sit down.” A look of “aha!” came over the Pope’s face and he made his way to the papal chair, whereupon the gracious crowd of thousands sat down in groups on their beach chairs, blankets and mats. I thought of the Sermon on the Mount.
As he vacates the Chair of Peter, it is evident that Benedict XVI has lost little of that simplicity and humility. He is a man surprised by his own celebrity, content to step aside from history’s most ancient and durable office to commence a quiet retirement of prayer and study. Personally, I think he is stepping down because he thinks that another, younger pope will serve the Church better. In time, we will realize what a deep and enduring gift he has left the Church, the world and every Catholic.
Ad multos annos!