Benedict XVI: One Man’s Search for God

“Lord, I love you!”

These are the final words, it has been reported, whispered by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI hours before his death. These are the words of one whose life was consumed by his ongoing encounter with and total surrender to the Lord, personal and public.

In his opening homily as the newly elected bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI recalled the opening homily of St. John Paul II when he began his service as pope: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!” John Paul II encouraged all, especially the young, not to fear a loss of freedom by allowing Christ into their lives. Benedict XVI reaffirmed the challenge of his predecessor and dear friend in that homily, declaring:

I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away and gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.

Last Saturday, 31 December 2022, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI passed through the doors of death into the fullness of eternal life. The world and the church mourn the loss of this humble, gentle, servant of God.

Born Joseph Ratzinger in Marktl am Inn, Germany in 1927, Benedict XVI — philosopher, theologian, bishop, member of the College of Cardinals, pope — was a man of deep piety, towering intellect, advocate of an ecclesiology of communion, ecumenist and committed disciple of interfaith dialogue. And he loved music, especially the works of Mozart.

Pope Benedict XVI embraces Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople during Mass marking the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, 29 June 2008, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. (photo: CNS/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

One reads in the corpus of his writing, and observes in his pastoral ministry, a dedication to the “quaerere Deum,”the search for God. He called on Christians in the Middle East to make “a determined and unequivocal return to the search for God, which helps us to define and live authentically our relationship to God, neighbor and self.” (“Ecclesia in Medio Oriente” 2012, n.54).

This search was found in Benedict’s dedication to what is true, good and beautiful. In his travels he pointed to the ways in which the good and the beautiful in local cultures were enriched by the faith and the faith enriched by the good and the beautiful in the culture.

In his youth he experienced the horror and evil of Nazism and the violent disruption of war. After formal studies in philosophy and theology, he was ordained a priest on 29 June 1951. Following doctoral studies, he began a career as a university professor. From 1962 to 1965 he was present during the sessions of Vatican II, serving as the theological advisor to the archbishop of Cologne. Throughout his life, he would reflect on the historic significance of Vatican II. In his annual Christmas address in 2005, Benedict XVI identified the interpretive key to a proper understanding of the council as that of a “hermeneutic of reform.”

In 1977, Pope Paul VI appointed him archbishop of Munich and Freising. He chose as his episcopal motto, “cooperatores Veritatis.” His motto would characterize his life’s search for God and the zeal of his witness to the integral relationship between faith and reason.

Newly elected Pope John Paul II greets Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Munich and Freising in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on 22 October 1978. (photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano/KNA)

Created a cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1977, he was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope John Paul II in 1981. As prefect, he addressed the scourge of clerical sexual abuse of minors and other vulnerable persons plaguing the church, served on biblical and theological commissions, played a critical role in the preparation and the writing of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and participated in the life of multiple councils within the Roman Curia, including the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, to which CNEWA and its operating agency in the Middle East, Pontifical Mission, belong.

On 8 April 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as dean of the College of Cardinals, presided at the funeral Mass in St. Peter’s Square of Pope John Paul II. Just days later, on 19 April, he was elected pope, selecting the name Benedict. Upon his resignation from the papacy in February 2013 and the election of Pope Francis, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI lived in the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican, where he died.

Benedict XVI’s life was rooted in a radical, transformative encounter with Christ. In his encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est”(2005), he wrote simply and with his customary clarity about the meaning of being a Christian:

We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.

Being a Christian is an ongoing encounter of transformation in him, with him, through him. It is a transformation of one’s pierced heart because of immersion in the most intimate personal encounter with the Lord, especially in prayer.

Benedict XVI was a man of prayer who loved and cherished the life of prayer as priest, bishop and pope. The pope emeritus knew, loved and lived the great liturgical traditions of the church, cognizant that the church at prayer transforms each person and, consequently, the Body of Christ, the church!

How may one become more familiar with the life and thought of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI? My recommendation is to read his great trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth (2007, 2011, 2012).In this short, three-volume work, readers will observe not only his scholarship, but feel the presence of one who desired to share with the world his search for a personal encounter with the Lord.

In these final days of the Christmas season we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, the moment the Magi followed the star that led them to the new born Jesus. Benedict, deeply versed in the wisdom of the Eastern Christian writers, cites St. Gregory Nazianzen’s insight, i.e., that when the Magi arrived at the place to adore Jesus, “astrology came to an end, as the stars from then on traced the orbit determined by Christ.”

Pope Benedict XVI carries a candle during the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on 7 April 2012. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

During this time of Christmas and Epiphany, it is helpful to recall the words of Benedict on the significance of the star that led the Magi: “…it is not the star that determines the child’s destiny, it is the child that directs the star.”

We pray for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and we invoke the powerful intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who, together with the saints, Benedict saw as the paradigms of personal encounter and surrender to the mystery of God.

Finally, let us ask for the grace, once each day, to utter the words, “Lord, I love you!”

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