Let me say up front that I have a very personal feeling about Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement.
The Holy Father’s visit to Washington, D.C. in 2008 changed my life.
It was seeing him at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception which changed my curiosity into my becoming Catholic.
Let me explain.
For years, I would attend church with Callista (who was born and raised Catholic and is a longtime member of the Choir of the Basilica). As a non-Catholic I supported her deep commitment to the Church.
Further, Callista and I made a movie about Pope John Paul II and his pilgrimage to Poland in 1979. Nine Days that Changed the World is a remarkable film about this historic visit, which created a revolution of conscience that transformed Poland and fundamentally reshaped the spiritual and political landscape of the 20th Century. In producing this movie, I became even more intrigued with the amazing life of Pope John Paul II.
I gradually became more and more interested in the Catholic Church as an institution and in the Eucharist as the centerpiece of Catholic worship.
Of course, as a historian, I had studied the Church over the centuries including its strengths and weaknesses.
Having grown up Lutheran, serving as a Protestant acolyte in military chapels while my dad was in the Army, and becoming a Baptist in graduate school, I was pretty steeped in the history of the Reformation and the Protestant approach to God.
It was the weekly experience of the Catholic Church which had a steadily growing impact on me. The sense of community and reaffirmation of Christ’s sacrifice and love every Sunday — strengthened by my study of the extraordinary leadership and evangelism of Pope John Paul II drew me closer to the Church.
And yet the intellectual curiosity had not converted into an emotional bond — until Pope Benedict XVI came to Washington, D.C. in 2008.
During this visit, the Bishops gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for Vespers with the Holy Father
The Choir of the Basilica was invited to sing for Vespers. As a spouse of a choir member, I was invited to come to the Basilica. Spouses were allowed to sit in the large Upper Church while the Choir, the hierarchy, and the Pope were in an intimate Crypt Church below (which was good for the Choir because the Crypt Church is both beautiful and has extraordinary acoustics). Here, we watched the Vesper Service on large screen televisions.
To our surprise, the Holy Father, came through the sanctuary and visited with guests in the Upper Church. There was clearly joy in his eyes – it was absolutely stunning. His theme for the visit was “Christ our Hope” which I certainly thought captured the heart of Christianity in three words. His interaction with people was joyous as he communicated God’s love.
I was really surprised by the intense personal happiness Pope Benedict XVI conveyed. I had previously seen him as an intellectual German theologian (one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century) but not as an emotional evangelist like Pope John Paul II.
Yet here the Holy Father was visibly enjoying, indeed thrilled, by his chance to bring Christ’s message of salvation to the United States.
That night at dinner I told Monsignor Walter Rossi, the Rector of the Basilica and our good friend, that I wanted to become Catholic.
So you can see why I was deeply moved by the announcement that for the first time since 1415, a Pope would resign (and that occasion involved a political solution to having multiple Popes during the Avignon period) and for the first time since 1294 (and to the best of our knowledge only the second time in history) a Pope would resign because of age and energy.
In his last meeting with the Cardinals, Pope Benedict XVI noted “One of you is the future Pope, whom I today promise my unconditional reverence and obedience.”
This is a unique historic moment for the Catholic Church.
It is also a deeply personal moment for me.
Last night the Choir of the Basilica, led by Dr. Peter Latona, offered “Truth and Beauty: A Musical Tribute to Pope Benedict XVI.” Their wonderful music was interspersed with quotes from the Holy Father. (It was broadcast by EWTN).
Allow me to close with one example of his deep faith: “Love is the light — and in the end, the only light — that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practice it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world — this is the invitation I would like to extend.”
Pope Benedict may have retired, but his words will live on forever.