He has been hounded by numerous controversies in his lifetime, albeit undeservedly. To mention a few: being branded as the “German Shepherd” or “God’s Rottweiler” during his stint as the chief in the doctrinal office and shutting down several seemingly disconcordant voices of theologians and the like around the world; a recipient of a howl of protests after his lecture in 2006 at the University of Regensburg; accused of being a Hitler sympathizer in Germany, which then made every young person obliged to be a member of the Nazi party; and an uncompromising conservative and fearless traditionalist in matters of faith, morals, and rituals, etc. All these and more have depicted Benedict XVI as rather less likable before the world, at least as popular media has shown him and his persona. He has been hurt too, for sure. But despite that and everything in between, Benedict might have welcomed everything in his heart as very much part and parcel of his pastoral work as a global leader and his personal vocation as a believer in and follower of Jesus Christ.
To put it mildly, Pope Benedict sought to please none other than the Lord himself. Very far from it. On the contrary, he would spontaneously shy away from the world and its limelight, as proven by his resignation from papal office and seclusion in the confines of a monastery.
When I was a seminarian, we used to get a glimpse of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, acknowledged as one of the most brilliant theologians of the century, and the future Pope Benedict XVI through stories shared with us by Chito (now Cardinal Tagle), our long-time seminary rector in Tagaytay. They collaborated with the International Theological Commission. I will not forget how Chito would put Pope Benedict side by side with Pope John Paul II: “Pope John Paul II would eat anything; Pope Benedict has a gastronomic regimen but would devour anything of dark chocolate. One is a robust mountaineer, while the other would rather stay at home with his piano. The Polish Pope gains energy from people, especially from the multitude; the German prelate, on the other hand, is such an introvert. Pope Benedict is naturally shy. But when you are with him you would have a sense that you are his only world with his eyes focused on you alone.”
For his part, the Cebuano priest Monsignor Jan Limchua (current member of the Pontifical Family or one of those who lives close to the Pope), claimed in his homily during the Requiem Mass in Cebu that when he personally met with Pope Benedict XVI, “He was more interested in me more than I am interested in myself.” For this young Vatican official, a such gesture of Pope Benedict belied the perception that he was cold, aloof, and rigid. On the contrary, he was always a father to his priests – always had time for them, listening to their pleas and visiting them in their parishes. “People misjudged you as enclosed in a palace, but you were a pastor according to the heart of God,” attested Limchua.
While people may have indeed misjudged Pope Benedict, he, nonetheless, would not make any effort to make himself appear as a darling before prying eyes. He stood by his convictions, whatever they were. After all, what really mattered for this “humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord” was nothing else but the Truth. This claim holds water if we remember that his motto is actually “Cooperatores Veritatis.”
I think I should also say that I was also privileged enough to get a closer look at Pope Benedict when I was part of his mammoth audience when I was studying in Spain. Not just once but on three occasions: in Lourdes (France) at the celebration of the 150th Anniversary of Mary’s Apparition to St. Bernadette (2008), at the Consecration of Sagrada Familia Church in Barcelona (2010), and during the World Youth Day in Madrid (2011). With the high-caliber intelligence and gentleness of the soul of Benedict, attending those three momentous events was such a real treat and feast for my mind and my spirit. How he elaborated on the virtue of smiling amidst suffering and sickness in his homily in Lourdes was both profound and top-notch. Said he, “In the very simple manifestation of tenderness that we call a smile, we grasp that our sole wealth is the love God bears us, which passes through the heart of her who became our Mother. To seek this smile is first of all to have grasped the gratuitousness of love; it is also to be able to elicit this smile through our efforts to live according to the word of her Beloved Son, just as a child seeks to elicit its mother’s smile by doing what pleases her.”
What will forever be very symbolic, and iconic at that, was the vigil with the young people of the world together with the Pope in Cuatro Vientos in Madrid. “Huracan” (typhoon) interrupted Pope Benedict’s address to the youth. After the storm passed, the 83-year-old priest returned and exposed the Blessed Sacrament. Suddenly, Madrid’s vast open field went from frantic to solemn, from restlessness to peace and silence. Then and there, the focus shifted. It was now on the Lord Jesus, not Pope Benedict. For his part, Benedict too turned his focus on the young people, saying, “Your strength is stronger than the rain. Thank you. The Lord is sending us his blessings with the rain. With this, you are living by example.” In effect, he was nowhere to be found—there was only God and the youth of the world. Benedict has eclipsed.
If it is a sport, we can tell that Benedict’s favorite game is eclipse. He seemed to have perfected the art of fading away. He was just always in the background. He was in Cardinal Frings’ shadow as “peritus” (theological expert) during deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. He was proverbially sandwiched between his charismatic predecessor (Pope John Paul II) and his irrepressible successor (Pope Francis). Between these two gigantic figures, the introverted barrio boy from Bavaria could automatically be reduced to whatchamacallit. Last but definitely not least, his courage and tremendous humility to retire from the papacy have spoken volumes about his person and about his soul. Consequently, he opted to hide and confine himself inside the monastery to a life of prayer and penance. If that is not eclipsing, then what is? And lest we forget, he has always been just a “little brother” to his “kuya” Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, 3 years senior to Pope Benedict.
At age 95, Pope Benedict XVI faded away again, becoming his last. According to his last message, he had many reasons to be thankful for his life. Too, he was asking for forgiveness “for those he wronged in any way.” But he also asked “humbly” that, despite all these “sins and shortcomings” he be welcomed by God into heaven.
Fade now, our Beloved Benedict. Thank you for your silent witness to us.