The second memory that remains with me from that ordination day is the superb homily that Ratzinger gave in which he thanked the parents of the young men being ordained for their generosity in their gift of their sons to the Church.
During my years of study in Rome I did not see the future Pope on many occasions but I do recall once seeing him crossing St Peter’s Square on his way to work, dressed in a simple black cassock and beret. He looked just like a humble village parish priest! Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that he described himself, after his election as Pope in 2005, as “a simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.” And such he has certainly proved to be over these last eight years.
I am sure many of us have vivid memories of those strange but beautiful days after the death of our beloved Blessed Pope John Paul II. It was of course Cardinal Ratzinger who, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, presided over the late Pontiff’s funeral rites and guided the Church during the sede vacante period, a period we are about to enter upon again on 28th February as Pope Benedict retires. I shall never forget the Requiem Mass at which I was so privileged to be able to proclaim the gospel as a deacon. The Mass was celebrated by Ratzinger whose homily again was excellent. He was obviously emotional. At the end of his sermon the crowd was clapping & chanting. I think some were even shouting, Joseph, Joseph! I recall him raising his eyes to heaven in a gesture of half-embarrassment and half good-natured despair, but with a smile on his face. As he brought his eyes back to the square his gaze met mine and I answered him with a knowing yet self-conscious smile. That was a beautiful moment for me!
Fr. Paul proclaiming the Gospel at Pope John Paul II’s funeral
The next few days saw the preparations for the conclave that would elect Benedict XVI. Another memory that will always remain with me is the homily he preached at the opening Mass of the conclave. With a simple, gentle and unassuming authority he spoke about the destructive power of what he called the ‘dictatorship of relativism’ – a phrase he has used since and which I believe goes to the heart of the problems of our own Western culture: intolerance in the name of tolerance, we might say.
It is, perhaps above all, for his gentle yet firm teaching that he will be most remembered. A friend of mine who works in the Vatican is sure that we will still be reading some of Benedict’s writings in a thousand years. Another friend of mine once put it like this: “I could walk into the fires of hell holding that man’s hand and feel utterly safe”.
Well, the Church is not about to walk into hell because Our Lord has promised us that the gates of the underworld will never prevail against His body, the Church. But we enter uncertain waters. We are all the more safe, however, and all the more certain of our way because of the wise and holy example of this blessed of pastors.
Let us pray for Pope Benedict as he begins the last stage of his earthly pilgrimage to our heavenly homeland and pray that his successor will be every bit as wise and holy, and bring a fresh vigour to the role of guiding the Church.