Fr. Roger J. Landry
Special Edition on Pope Benedict
March 8, 2013
Over the last 25 days since Benedict XVI’s shocking announcement, I’ve been pondering the influence he has had in my formation as a disciple and a priest and have been thanking God for all the blessings He has given me and the Church through this “simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”
I first became aware of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when I was a college freshman, 25 years ago. I had always been a faithful, practicing Catholic, but I had never really taken the intellectual side of our faith that seriously. All of this changed when I got to Harvard and encountered students and professors who were hostile against the faith, pretending that the Good News was wicked and the Church an enemy of humanity. Perhaps even worse, I also met Catholic students who, while still coming to Mass on Sunday, were, by choice and not by weakness, were proudly and flamboyantly failing to live by the Church’s teachings, treating Christian sexual morality as a fire extinguisher on human love rather than the truth that sets us free.
It was a huge wake-up call. After getting ambushed in a few dormitory conversations, outnumbered five or six to one, I concluded that if I were going to defend the Church’s teachings and help my classmates, I would have to become much smarter, learning not just my faith but also contemporary thought much better.
A priest recommended I read “The Ratzinger Report,” the fascinating 1985 book length interview with the-then Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith. In it, Cardinal Ratzinger minced no words about the problems facing the Church and the world, but also proposed with confidence what the Church needed to do to help those in the world find healing. I was blown away by how deep and clear was his understanding of the problems and the needed medicine.
That led me to start to devour everything I could from him and to read the books and Church documents he cited. Standing on his shoulders, I could see things far more clearly. For me, Cardinal Ratzinger was a master alpine climber who through his books was coming down to guide me on the path to the summit. His vision trained me to become a better disciple and collegiate apostle.
When I arrived in Rome as a seminarian, there were two people I really wanted to meet. The first was, obviously, Pope John Paul II. But a close second was Cardinal Ratzinger. I was not alone in those desires. Many of my classmates were likewise big fans of Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings and courage in defending the doctrine of the faith. Older seminarians told us that he celebrated Mass each week at the Teutonic College inside the Vatican walls. So a group of fellow aspirants to the priesthood and I went one morning to his Mass, celebrated in German, after which he very warmly greeted, found out where we were from, and encouraged us in our preparation. It was not the last time I would attend his devout Mass!
About a year later, I was standing on the Borgo Pio precisely at 4 pm when I saw him come out of the back of his apartment complex. I went over to greet him. He very kindly spent a few minutes with me before he politely excused himself to go on a walk praying the Rosary. Later, I saw him come out of the same door at precisely the same time. The pattern was now clear! I made a resolution that whenever I was in that neighborhood a little before 4, I would go over to greet him. I was there a lot, with visiting seminarians and friends.
After I had “accidentally” bumped into him more than a dozen times, he commented, with a grin and a knowing look, “How eez it that you zeem to be here on the Borgo Pio zo often during zee afternoon?” I smiled back at him and said, “You’re not the only one, Eminence, who needs afternoon exercise to work off a big pranzo [lunch]. And you never know whom you might meet!” We had a good laugh together. In all these conversations, he never seemed to be in a rush. He was always interested in what I and those with me were studying, and he would always give words of encouragement and just share his deep Christian joy.
After John Paul II returned to the house of the Father, I was among the many praying that the Holy Spirit would move the Cardinals to elect this German shepherd, because I thought he would be an unparalleled intellectual leader for the Church. I was on retreat when word of the white smoke came. The retreat master got us all together before the one television in the retreat center As soon as the Cardinal Medina announced the name “Josephum,” I started raising my arms and howling, knowing that there was no way Cardinal Joseph Glemp of Warsaw had been elected on the fourth ballot. Then came the surname “Ratzinger,” and all the other priests on retreat started rejoicing, too.
These last eight years have been for me a real theological feast of faith. For my personal nourishment as well as for my preaching and writing, I’ve read and taken to prayer almost every homily, Wednesday audience catechesis on the psalms, the saints, prayer, faith and liturgical feast, his Sunday Angelus or Regina Caeli meditation, question-and-answer session, lectio divina transcription, and foreign speech.
I’ve taught many adult education sessions on his three encyclicals, two apostolic exhortations, and three volumes of the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy.
I have plundered all his pre-papal and papal writings on the subject of prayer for retreats that I’ve been preaching to priest, religious, seminarians and lay people over the last couple of years.
From the beginning, I knew that we were in a special pontificate, with a living doctor of the Church sitting on the cathedra of Peter. I was not going to let the grace of his teaching — which I firmly believe will be treated in 500 years the way we today treat the writings of St. Augustine or St. Leo the Great — go in vain. Every time I open my mind and heart to what’s come from his, it feels like my intellect and will are getting bathed in cool, clean water.
Of all that he’s taught and given us, what is his greatest and most durable lesson? I think it will be his efforts to bring back a true and fitting worship — a logike latreia, to use St. Paul’s words that he so often quoted (Rom 12:2) — in the celebration of the Mass, after decades of liturgical confusion. The Mass, he taught by word and witness, is fundamentally theocentric, in which priest and people are called to focus on God, rather than remaining a self-enclosed circle worshipping themselves. The art of celebrating the Mass, he taught priests and faithful by word and witness, is to align our minds, hearts, soul, strength and all we are, body and soul, to the prayers being directed toward God the Father. Among all his teachings that will nourish the Church until the parousia, this I think is his most urgent and important legacy.
As we come together to give God logike latreia during this interregnum and notice the liturgical lacuna where we once prayed “for Benedict, our Pope,” let us ask the Lord to bless and reward this good and faithful servant and raise up for us another Pope capable of consolidating and advancing his work of strengthening us in the faith.
Benedictus means “blessed by God,” and that’s exactly what we’ve been during his pontificate.