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Day 26: Lessons from a Gentle Teacher

Joe Hopkins is currently the Lay Catholic Chaplain at the University of Nottingham, soon to be the School Chaplain at Christ the King Catholic Voluntary Academy, Nottingham. Joe is very passionate about the importance of Chaplaincy in Education and working with young people. He is also proud Irishman… from Derby!  www.catholic-community.org.uk

As I begin to write this, on the night before the Pope’s resignation takes effect, my memory is cast back to that day in April 2005, I was 14 at the time and can still remember seeing the white smoke being shown on Newsround! Quickly we switched to the live coverage of the new Pope coming on to the balcony- and there was my first glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI; a man then I knew as the guy who did John Paul II’s funeral but would become the man who shaped by adult faith.

The first few months and years after his election I heard how his Papacy would be a disaster- he’ll be too academic, he won’t relate to young people, he’ll be too traditional etc. I didn’t know what to believe myself, it only took a couple of years until I discovered that Pope Benedict, for me, was and is a teacher; a gentle tutor and he has taught me four of the most incredible lessons in life:

In my first year of university I was part of a group that went to a student conference that concluded with an audience with the Pope in the Papal Palace. This was incredible! I was right at the edge of the aisle so saw him very close as he entered the room and I was taken back at how much he loved being with us! I had never seen someone so happy, so full of love. He was very short but yet the biggest person in the room. I knew then why you call the Pope your Holiness… he was, is, Holy- so so Holy. His address to us was so full of life, I remember being so taken back when he said he would pray for all of us gathered their and our families. THE POPE WAS GOING TO PRAY FOR ME! Surely there are greater things he needed to do with his time? No, this was the first thing Pope Benedict demonstrated to me- Prayer is the most important, most effective and most wonderful thing we can do on earth; everything else is meaningless without it.

At the end of the audience he moved down the aisle shaking people’s hands. I was on the edge and was getting very excited as he slowly made his way down; I was practising what I was going to say ‘God bless you Papa’. Then when he reached the person next to me he went over to the opposite… but then he came back across and remembered who was the last person he hand met and carried on from their. I grabbed his hand and would not let go! I looked him straight in the eye and said ‘God bless you Father!’ (not quite your Holiness) he smiled and said ‘God bless you too’. That was cool. I froze and the Swiss Guard had to physically remove from my grip the poor Pope’s hand. After speaking to us he had a meeting with the Canadian Prime Minister, because the G8 were in Rome, and he was 45 minutes late because he was with us! He has a very different perspective of who VIPs are.

jesus-of-nazareth-iiiI was changed by this meeting and started reading some of his writing most notably his Jesus of Nazareth series. His love for and of Christ shone from every word in the books. Here was a man who knew Jesus like a close friend and he wanted others to have this friendship; to be truly alive to be truly joyful we need a loving, honest and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I believe this is what has driven Pope Benedict throughout his life, and this is what fills him with the Joy that I witnessed myself. I strive to love and know Christ as he does.

I have been privileged to see Pope Benedict a few times more- in Birmingham during his state visit and a couple of times in Madrid during World Youth Day. When he came to the UK he surprised everyone, yet again, he command so much respect with simple actions. Building bridges, creating a legacy and reminding a secular nation the Church is here and it is alive. In Spain he withstood the scorching heat, down pours, gales etc. so that he could show the young people gathered there how much he cared and to encourage their faith further. This is where lesson number three came in do not be afraid to witness to the Gospel and serve the Church. It was after the Papal Visit that I considered working in Chaplaincy and after World Youth Day that I started actually working in it. I learnt that it is the simple acts of kindness in lovingly serving others and the bold yet ordinary witness to the faith; that has the greatest impact on people’s lives.

Finally this month I had my fourth major lesson from our wonderfully Holy Father. Above all be humble- it is for God’s glory why we are here not ours. I like the rest of the world was deeply shocked and saddened by the Pope’s resignation; the only way to describe it is heartbroken. I at first couldn’t understand how he could leave us! Then got over my over-dramatic selfishness and saw his great humility. Authority and leadership can be very enticing: being looked up to, having an effect on people’s lives, being respected and loved. However all this, though often deserved, is not what its about, it probably would be easier for the Pope to not retire to just delegate responsibility and take the easy options. In resigning the Pope has shown a beautiful and humble bravery- his love for the Church, his desire to serve and his deep prayer life- has helped him know his limitations. I believe that he is fully aware that he is one man, a great and wonderful man, but just one man and he has done everything that he can and it is right for the Church and the Gospel if he passes on to the next man. In my opinion Pope Benedict has been and is one of the greatest Pope this Church has seen yet he is only the Pope, he has a major mission but this is part of something greater then himself, Christ’s Church- his Body on earth, and the gates of the underworld will never prevail against it!

I close by drawing together those four lessons again:

  • Prayer is the most important, most effective and most wonderful thing we can do on earth
  • We need a loving, honest and personal relationship with Jesus Christ
  • We should not be afraid to witness to the Gospel and serve the Church
  • Above all be humble- it is for God’s glory why we are here not ours

Hans Küng said a few months ago, indicating to his written work, that time would who had the great legacy between him and the Pope. For me, and many others of ‘Generation Benedict’, these four lessons (and we) are our gentle tutor’s legacy and this will live for many years to come. God bless you Papa, Teacher and Friend.


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