By ARCHBISHOP GREGORY J. HARTMAYER, OFM Conv. | Published January 20, 2023 | En Español
On Dec. 31, 2022, the eve of Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI returned to the Father’s house. Earlier that week, Pope Francis had appealed for prayers for Benedict: “I would ask you all for a special prayer for Pope Emeritus Benedict, who in silence is supporting the Church. Remember him—he is very ill—asking the Lord to console him in this witness of love for the Church, until the end.”
At around 3 a.m. the day of his death, a nurse attending the late Pope heard him say, “Lord, I love you.” He would die a little over six hours later. His final words were a testament of his faith, hope and love: faith in Jesus as the Son of God, hope in preparing to face Jesus as his judge and love of Jesus, both as a friend and a brother.
In one homily, Benedict stated, “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him.”
Friendship with Christ was truly a summary of his whole life.
In his Spiritual Testament written on Aug. 29, 2006, Pope Benedict reflected on his life in a spirit of thanksgiving. He expressed his gratitude to God for the gift of life and for his mercy. He thanked his parents for their undying love and for passing on the gift of faith. He remembered his sister and brother, as well as the many friends on his journey of life. He recalled the beauty of his homeland Bavaria, and that of Rome, his “second homeland.” He asked forgiveness from those “I have wronged in any way.” He offered one clear counsel to the church, which he so faithfully led, to “stand firm in the faith.”
Faith was a constant theme in the life of Benedict XVI, in his preaching and teaching.
“The ‘door of faith’ is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church,” he once wrote. “It is possible to cross that threshold when the word of God is proclaimed and the heart allows itself to be shaped by transforming grace. To enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime.”
Small wonder that St. John Paul II would, on Nov. 25, 1981, summon then-Cardinal Ratzinger to Rome to serve as the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, a role he occupied for 24 years, serving as a loyal and faithful co-worker with the pontiff. While he wanted to resign on a number of occasions, John Paul II would hear nothing of it.
When Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger presided at the funeral Mass. There we saw a very different side of him—the pastor. His homily was interrupted several times with applause. Pointing to the window of the late Pope’s study, he said, “None of us can ever forget how in that last Easter Sunday of his life, the Holy Father, marked by suffering, came once more to the window of the Apostolic Palace and one last time gave his blessing urbi et orbi. We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s House, that he sees us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father.”
The crowds were ecstatic. Cardinal Ratzinger won the hearts of the people.
In his homily of April 18, 2005, the future pope as Dean of the College of Cardinals preached to the cardinals prior to the conclave that would elect him. He gave a succinct reading of the signs of the times and warned against “a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive…” He prayed that the Lord would once again “give us a Pastor according to his own heart, a Pastor who will guide us to knowledge of Christ, to his love and to true joy.”
The next time we would see him would be on the balcony at the central window of St. Peter’s Basilica as the new pontiff. Pope Benedict XVI said, “After the great Pope John Paul II, the Cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord. The fact that the Lord knows how to work and to act even with inadequate instruments comforts me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers.”
A fruitful papacy
The joy and excitement of those gathered in St. Peter’s Square was electric.
His papacy was fruitful, with apostolic journeys and pastoral visits, encyclicals and books, including the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, and Ad Limina visits with the world’s bishops and meetings with ecumenical and interreligious representatives. He asked for forgiveness for the sexual abuse crisis and readily met with victims. Humility and simplicity were the hallmarks of his papacy.
The weight of the Petrine ministry wore heavily on him. To the shock of the world, he announced on Feb. 10, 2013 that he would resign, citing his health and advanced age.
“With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer,” he said.
Through social media, we accompanied him on his final journey from St. Peter’s to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. A helicopter carrying him circled St. Peter’s Basilica and the great dome and flew into the sunset. At 8 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, as bells chimed and pilgrims sobbed, his final words were, “I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth. But I would still, thank you, I would still—with my heart, with my love, with my prayers, with my reflection, and with all my inner strength—like to work for the common good and the good of the Church and of humanity.”
He pledged unconditional reverence and obedience to whomever the next pope would be.
On March 13, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Bergolio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected pope and took the name Francis. He immediately paid tribute to Pope Benedict and would do so many times after in terms of affection, gratitude and respect. Pope Francis has also highlighted his courage and humility. At a press conference, he said of his predecessor, “He is a man of God, a humble man, a man of prayer. I was so happy when he was elected Pope. Also, when he resigned, for me it was an example of greatness. A great man. Only a great man does this!”
At the vespers service on New Year’s Eve, the Holy Father said, “With emotion we remember his person, so noble and so kind. And we feel so much gratitude in our hearts: gratitude to God for having given him to the Church and to the world, gratitude to him for all the good he has done, and above all for his witness of faith and of prayer, especially in these last years of his retired life…Only God knows the value and strength of his intercession, of his sacrifices offered for the good of the Church.”
On Feb. 8, 2022, the Pope Emeritus issued a letter responding to a report on sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich. He wrote of his profound shame and deep sorrow for the scourge of clerical sexual abuse and asked for forgiveness.
Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote, “I am increasingly struck by the fact that day after day the Church begins the celebration of Holy Mass —in which the Lord gives us his word and his very self—with the confession of our sins and a petition for forgiveness. We publicly implore the living God to forgive [the sins we have committed through] our fault, through our most grievous fault. It is clear to me that the words ‘most grievous’ do not apply each day and to every person in the same way. Yet every day they do cause me to question if today too I should speak of a most grievous fault. And they tell me with consolation that however great my fault may be today, the Lord forgives me, if I sincerely allow myself to be examined by him, and am really prepared to change.”
The letter’s last paragraph is a glimpse into the very soul of Benedict and is a beautiful reflection for all of us as we continue our journeys through life, whether they be long or short.
“Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life. Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my ‘Paraclete.’ In light of the hour of judgment, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me,” the letter read. “It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death. In this regard, I am constantly reminded of what John tells us at the beginning of the Apocalypse: he sees the Son of Man in all his grandeur and falls at his feet as though dead. Yet He, placing his right hand on him, says to him: ‘Do not be afraid! It is I…’ (cf. Rev 1:12-17).”
While the world has lost a great voice of truth and the Catholic Church, a beloved pastor, we thank God for the gift of the life and ministry of this “humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”
I was appointed Bishop of Savannah by Pope Benedict XVI on July 19, 2011. I am forever humbled and grateful for his confidence in me. I had the privilege of meeting him in Rome shortly after I was named bishop. He spoke to me in perfect English, noting that the name Hartmayer was German. He asked me from which region of Germany it originated. When I said “Bavaria,” he smiled and responded: “the same as me.”
He was a gentle and humble man. As Pope Benedict prayed for the church throughout his life, and especially during his years in retirement, he will continue to do so from the House of the Father. “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
Pope Francis, in his homily for his beloved predecessor, prayed, “Benedict, faithful friend of the Bridegroom, may your joy be complete as you hear his voice, now and forever.”
May he rest in peace and may his memory be eternal.