By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published April 21, 2005
Pope Benedict XVI brings great intellectual gifts to his service as pope, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said, as well as forthrightness, accessibility, understanding of the church’s most recent crisis, and pastoral qualities that might not be as widely known.
“I think the cardinals selected someone that they knew, that they trusted, that they had had good and loving contact with, and that they felt comfortable with,” the archbishop said April 19, immediately following the election of the new pope by the conclave of 115 cardinals from 52 countries around the world.
The new pope chosen, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has served as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican since 1981.
Archbishop Gregory, as past president and past vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he had met with the cardinal each time he traveled to Rome while serving in those positions. He found him to be very professional and responsive to the U.S. bishops’ topics, as well as an individual to whom one could speak candidly.
“Every time I went to Rome, both as vice president and as president, we had a meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger. And it was always the easiest of the meetings that we had, insofar as he was always well prepared. We would always write him several weeks before we arrived with a list of topics that we wanted to discuss. He always had the letter in front of him, he had his notes, and he went through the issues point by point. And then he always had things he wanted to talk about,” Archbishop Gregory said. “(He is) very, very professional, very organized and very cordial—a man you can talk to and raise the most sensitive issues with. He is very, very forthright and straightforward and well-informed and not threatened by questions . . . He is very, very bright, extraordinarily articulate and accessible.”
He is also extremely well informed about the clergy sexual abuse crisis, Archbishop Gregory said.
“His Congregation had competence over these matters, so he is very familiar with the extent and the seriousness and the scandal that has been involved. He has firsthand knowledge,” Archbishop Gregory said emphatically.
Specifically, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith deals with cases worldwide that concern dispensations and dismissals from the clerical life and the imposition of penalties in cases of those found guilty of sexual abuse of minors, Archbishop Gregory said.
“So he has seen the whole sorry dossier,” the archbishop emphasized.
This “is very important,” he added. “It means that the healing and the work that we have done will be in good, competent and well-informed hands.”
Pope Benedict XVI brings to the church a diversity of talent and experience, the archbishop said.
While his role in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is well known, he has also served as a diocesan bishop, the archbishop said, since he was the archbishop of Munich, Germany. He was also one of the two voting cardinals in this conclave to have been named a cardinal by Pope Paul VI.
He was serving as a theologian before he became a bishop, before he became archbishop of Munich, and before he became prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Gregory said. “He is a man of great wisdom,” Archbishop Gregory said, “certainly intellectually … one of the most qualified members of the Curia.”
Unlike Pope John Paul II, who emerged on the balcony of St. Peter’s in 1978 as someone virtually unknown to the Catholic community, Pope Benedict XVI has been in the public eye in his role with the doctrinal congregation over the past 24 years, particularly when church doctrine has been firmly articulated and when church positions have been controversial.
Archbishop Gregory said he would describe the new pope as “very clear in where he stands and very straightforward in his service,” but he would also describe him as pastoral. “I think you saw him when he preached the pope’s funeral Mass. You saw the pastor, how gentle and warm he was.”
“There’s a difficulty that any public figure suffers. They are defined by how the media reports them. And it’s rarely accurate or it’s certainly rarely complete. So the images that people might have of Pope Benedict XVI that they glean from some reporter’s description are never the whole story,” Archbishop Gregory said.
He shared a story about his own close friend, Msgr. Thomas Herron of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, who died of pancreatic cancer last May. The two met in Rome in 1976 when both were young priests beginning doctoral studies, and Msgr. Herron then went on to work in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the archbishop said.
Last year when he visited the dying priest, Msgr. Herron shared with him a letter he had received from Cardinal Ratzinger.
“Cardinal Ratzinger wrote Tom a personal letter that was one of the warmest, most comforting letters that I’ve ever read … That’s the kind of man that is now Benedict XVI.”
To the people of the archdiocese, he said, “The Holy Spirit has given us a teacher, a pastor and, as the Gospels this week continually go back to, a good shepherd. Last Sunday was Good Shepherd Sunday. This week we got another.”