I've been meaning to write about Pope Benedict for some time, but have never gotten around to it. Now that he has announced his retirement, it sounds like the perfect opportunity. I can’t write anything without writing a small novel. A lot of this is autobiographical, but it’s necessary to show why I LOVE this man!
Pope Benedict is the first Pope we have had in my lifetime that meant anything to me spiritually. Not that there was anything wrong with the others, it’s just that I was not in place to appreciate them at the time. During my lifetime, there have been five Popes:
John Paul I
John Paul II
John died when I was but a wee laddie, so I do not remember him at all. I should remember Paul VI better as he did not pass away until I was almost 19 years old, but I really don’t. Why? Largely because of the terrible catechesis of the 1970s.
I remember when I was in about 6th grade I was visiting a friend down the street. His Dad was the Pastor at Zion Reformed Church in Grandville which is right in my folks’ back yard. While attending a Vacation Bible School class at his house I remember they were trying to convert us heathen Catholics. I remember Mrs. Arnoldink said, “There are only two kinds of people in the world—Christians and…” (she waits for the answer—I was about to say “Catholics”) …“COMMUNISTS.” So I guess Catholics are Communists? I had to ask my Mom. Mrs. Arnoldink would have had a stroke if she knew that we played with Ouija boards with her kids in her basement at other times!
I remember that she kept harping on how evil this one guy was named “Po Paul.” I had no idea she meant “Pope Paul” because quite frankly, I had never heard of him. I had to ask my Mom who he was too because in my CCD classes we never talked about him. I didn't even know what a “Pope” was, let alone any details about this one.
It wasn't until I got into high school that I began to look at my faith seriously. Even then, I had been so heavily influenced by attending another friend’s Baptist church that the idea of an over-arching Church rather than just a local church seemed rather foreign to me. I knew that the Catholic Church was worldwide, but to me all that mattered was my local parish.
So when I began really questioning my faith at about the time that I got married, I had been led so far astray that my fiancée and I were wondering if we should be married in the Catholic Church or not. Because I was still thinking of it as a local individual parish, I convinced myself that as long as I stayed at THIS church (St. James, Grand Rapids, with Fr. Antekier) I could stay Catholic. I liked him because he did not seem to “over-emphasize” Mary, the Mother of Jesus too much.
When Mary and I got married, in order to not offend our Protestant friends, we decided to not have a Mass. We should have. Hardly any of them showed up anyway. Why I was more concerned with offending our Protestant friends than with offending our Catholic family, shows that we probably should not have been married in the Church. In retrospect, I’m glad we did though.
Shortly after were married, was the Assumption of Mary, and so there was a special Mass for her. By then I was reading decidedly anti-Catholic materials and I finally said enough is enough, Fr. Antekier was no different than all the rest, so I left and joined a Plymouth Brethren assembly.
This was in 1980, so as I said before, I did not really know much of anything about Pope Paul as I was growing up. Like most people, I didn't know much about John Paul I either as he lived only such a short time after becoming Pope.
I did not know who Pope John Paul II was at the time of his election and ordination, but I remember being as surprised as everyone else that he was Polish rather than Italian. My wife’s family is mostly Polish, so it was a pretty big deal in the family.
I had become a staunch anti-Catholic and so I just assumed that JPII was a typical hell-bound (in my mind) Catholic. I never paid attention to any of his pronouncements, encyclicals, or anything so I did not realize that he was a Saint in the making. I really wish I did, as it is obvious to me now that if I had, my spiritual life, and probably that of my wife and kids would have been much different.
But JPII did have an effect on me that I did not expect, and he softened my view of Catholicism. Lech Walesa began his Solidarity movement in Poland, and between him, Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II, in just a few short years they helped to overthrow the USSR and free Poland and East Germany from their steel fist, and his greatness became apparent to me. He was actually a hero to a huge part of the world. Then his life as a youth and his work against communism in Poland began to be known and I could not help but admire him. Yet my Baptist Church still thought of him as the Devil incarnate.
This set up a huge conflict in my head. I really believed that there is no possible way that he could be “saved” because of the things that a priest, bishop, or Pope has to believe about themselves. I thought it was blasphemy. Surely they would be damned. But I wanted to like him. I did admire him in the political front, but how can this obviously good man, who says he loves Jesus be going to hell?
About this time I got out of the Army and came back home to Michigan, returning to my and my wife’s Catholic family and their influence. Over the next several years I saw how my nieces and nephews were becoming fine young Christian men and women, despite being Catholic. It did not occur to me later that it was not in spite of being Catholic, but because of being Catholic that they were turning out so well.
It look a lot of years yet before I finally saw the light and returned to the Faith of our Fathers. My wife still has not yet. Shortly before I did though, I began to read: first Evangelical is not Enough, by Thomas Howard ((the brother of Elisabeth Elliot (wife of Jim Elliot an evangelical Christian who was one of five missionaries killed while evangelizing the Waodani people of Ecuador, whose life was depicted in the movie “The End of the Spear”)), and Rome Sweet Home by Scott Hahn.
Eventually reading these materials and others and investigating the writing of the Church Fathers (the whole writings, not just cherry-picked excerpts as many evangelicals do) that led me back. Shortly after that, I began to read materials by Pope Benedict, and some of his older works written as Joseph Ratzinger and re-released by Ignatius Press. Pope Benedict is quite frankly, one of the finest authors I have ever read. He has a deep understanding of Scripture and I would not be at all surprised for him to one day be declared a Doctor of the Church.
His latest work, Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives is a good place to start with his writings. Please read it, Catholic or not, you will love his insight and the way that he can make everything fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. This book is much shorter than the other two that he wrote in the series, and is a good segue into his other works.
It is exceedingly unusual to see a Pope resign his office. He says it is because of his health, and he has seemed rather frail of late, so I respect his decision to step down. I do hope though that he is able to continue with his writing and teachings until the Lord calls him home.