The Emeritus Pope, having spoken these words during his final public appearance in Castel Gandolfo, has lived up to his promise. Since stepping down from the Petrine Ministry on 28 February 2013, Benedict XVI has led a life of prayer that is all but completely hidden from public view.
While his successor Pope Francis, elected less than two weeks after the resignation took effect, has become the center of the media’s attention, Pope Emeritus Benedict and his legacy has not been forgotten, even though he continues to be regularly misunderstood by the secular press.
“One’s got to see the popes within the context of history,” said Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in an interview with ZENIT. “We had Pope John [XXIII] who will be canonized – he called the [Second Vatican] Council. We had Pope John Paul [II], a sort of worldwide evangelist, if you like. Then you had Pope Benedict – a thinker – who had to deal with the Church where, in some way, things had gone wrong… I don’t envy him that task.”
Citing the specific challenges Benedict had to face, namely the child abuse crisis and the troubles within the Vatican, the Cardinal noted that “he had a very difficult pontificate.”
However, despite the often negative representations of Benedict in the press, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor recalled the impact he made during his visit to Britain “when, having been the sort of German Rottweiler, he became the German shepherd, and the people warmed to him.”
“There is much to be thankful for,” he said. “And, thankful, too, for the grace and bravery of his resignation.”
A quality for which Benedict has often been commended is his humility, especially exemplified by his resignation from papacy. Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo, director of the Institute for continuing Theological Education and adjunct spiritual advisor at Rome’s Pontifical North American College, told ZENIT that this humility “is the greatest pulpit that Pope Benedict has ever taught from.”
“He always spoke constantly about the need to become small” he said. “That was his great teaching. We need to be small, we need to be little in order to enter the kingdom of God. We need to be humble.”
“What we saw in his own persona during these years, and especially when he sacrificed himself by laying down the papacy, was a man who lived what he himself taught. He became a humble servant for the Lord. Imagine the pope, and you give up everything to go into a convent, away from the world, in order to pray for the Church and Her needs.”
Msgr. Figueiredo also highlighted Benedict XVI’s intelligence, citing him as “perhaps the greatest theologian we have in our own time.”
“I always think of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, which was just a gem on love, but how do we direct that love and purify it so that it really reflects the love of God and brings happiness.”
Dedicated to service
Although the secular media often portrays Benedict XVI as a cold and legalistic leader, those who know him say this presentation could not be further from the truth. “I’ve heard it said that there was no world leader who’s actual personality is so markedly different from the image that is presented,” said Venerable English College (VEC) rector Msgr. Philip Whitmore, citing a diplomatic official who had often worked with Benedict. He was “a man who certainly wasn’t interested in having power or influence over other people, but did what was asked of him by the Church, what was asked of him by the Lord.”
Before accepting the position of rector of the (VEC), Msgr. Whitmore had served in the English section of the Vatican Secretariat of State where he was involved in providing Pope Benedict with his day-to-day needs in terms of texts in English.
“I was very fond of him personally, and really enjoyed, and felt greatly privileged, to work for him in that way,” he told ZENIT. “I know him to be a very gentle, a very good, a very kind, very simple, very holy, extraordinarily intelligent, but a very humble person. He’s very open, very well able to listen, but still able to respond from the depth of his faith and his knowledge of the tradition and the teaching of the Church.”
“I shall certainly take away the image of one dedicated to the service of others, to the service of the Lord, and above all his supremely humble gesture of resigning, illustrated the person he always was and always had been.”
For those training for the priesthood, Benedict XVI left behind “a formidable body of teaching – his writings, his homilies, his speeches.” He referred namely to the 2010 Letter to Seminarians, which he encourages all those in formation to read and reflect upon.
His writings, the rector continued, provide “a wonderful legacy that I think is going to nourish us, not just for years, but for centuries.”
Benedict was also an example for seminarians and priests, Msgr. Whitmore said, through his “simplicity and goodness, and engaging the world while, at the same time, evangelizing the world, and listening to the world while presenting the Gospel to the world. It’s a very difficult combination to get right, but I think he got it right.”
The impact which Benedict XVI had upon the faithful, however, extended well beyond the Vatican. Ryan Service, 26, is a second year seminarian at the VEC who is studying for the Diocese of Birmingham. He cites the Pope’s 2010 visit to the UK as being the turning point in his decision to enter seminary.
“At that time, an 82 year old man visiting from Rome, a German,” he said describing the visit, “and I was there outside Westminster Square, surrounded by 200-300 young people, one from every parish in the UK.”
Although there had been severe negativity in the press during the period leading up to the Pope’s arrival, Service said, “the second he came out into the [Square], and without saying a word, just his calm serenity, sheer joy, seeing us, being with us, 60 years between most of us, there was relationship, a real exchange, even without words. All that press image just faded away.”
“It knocked me off my feet: this is a gentle man, and he inspired such joy.”
“His message was very simple,” Service said. “For a man of many words, and many books, and many articles, he spoke simply of the love of Christ, and the love that we’re meant to receive, and the love we’re meant to give. He just summed up Christianity in two sentences, and I wanted it: I wanted to be part of that, to share in that joy.”