Father Daniel J. Merz believes Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will be remembered as one of the greatest teaching popes in recent history — “probably going back several centuries.”
“I would put him in the class of the early Church Fathers, including Pope Leo the Great,” said Fr. Merz, pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish in Columbia.
Pope Benedict, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, died on Dec. 31, 2022.
He had led the Church from 2005-2013. He previously served as archbishop of Munich and Freising, then as prefect for the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) through most of the lengthy pontificate of his predecessor, Pope St. John Paul II.
In February 2013, the first German pope in centuries became the first pope in over 600 years to resign from office, citing health problems due to age and infirmity.
He spent the next nine years reading, writing and devoting many hours to praying for the Church in a separate residence in Vatican City.
“I would venture to say that he has been one of the more transformational popes in recent history,” said Fr. Merz.
He said that it would be harder to find a man of greater humility, gentleness and meekness than the former Cardinal Josef Ratzinger.
*“Humility,” Fr. Merz stated, “because he never put himself forward for high office and at least three times he petitioned Pope John Paul II to accept his resignation from Prefect of the CDF, and yet he was not disparaging of the gifts with which God had blessed him.”
When, as a 35-year-old priest, he was asked to serve as the peritus (expert) for his Cardinal Archbishop at the Second Vatican Council, he accepted; when asked to become the archbishop of Munich-Freising, he accepted; when asked to become the chief doctrinal officer for Pope John Paul II, he accepted; and when elected as successor to Pope John Paul II, he accepted.
“He was not afraid to say that he was not blessed with the gift of governance and administration, and so he did his best to surround himself with the right people to help him,” Fr. Merz noted. “Perhaps, the greatest example of humility was not only his resignation from the papacy, but the way he lived his remaining years in quiet prayer, avoiding attention and shunning controversy.”
*“Gentleness,” Fr. Merz continued, “because those who actually engaged him all testify to how he listened first and attentively. He was a man who desired to propose and dialogue and learn and persuade.”
*“Meekness,” said Fr. Merz, “because his gentleness and humility never led him to back away from proclaiming the truth as he was given to see it despite pressure, tension or coercion.”
Fr. Merz noted that prior to being elected pope, Cardinal Ratzinger was not afraid to use the authority of his office as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to sanction or discipline wayward theologians.
“Nor was he afraid to confront the ‘filth of the Church’ — cases of clerical sexual abuse — and to work tirelessly and compassionately for justice,” said Fr. Merz. “He was the first pope to meet with victims of such abuse and it filled him with tears every time.”
Fr. Merz called to mind the day in October 2005 when Pope Benedict was elected to succeed the recently deceased, long-reigning, tremendously popular Blessed Pope John Paul II.
Addressing the world from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, the new pope described himself to the world as a “humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard.”
“I think he has remained true to that,” said Fr. Merz. “And he continues to teach us even in this act of resignation — teaching that no single individual is indispensable, and showing a greater love for the Church than for himself or for the theoretical ideal that the pope must die in office. His desire to finish his days in quiet prayer for the Church is very inspiring.”
Fr. Merz recalled that when “The Passion of the Christ,” a jarringly graphic motion picture depicting Jesus’ suffering and death was released in 2004, the future pope declined to watch it because he said that he possessed a very sensitive soul and wouldn’t feel comfortable absorbing the violent scenes of the movie.
Fr. Merz credits Pope Benedict with many positive developments in the Church, including:
For instance, Fr. Merz recalled the Pope’s preaching on Christ’s resurrection to the young people at World Youth Day in Cologne.
“He spoke of the resurrection as being similar to a thermonuclear explosion, transforming Christ in its wake and causing a ripple effect in the world that continues to this day,” said Fr. Merz. “Now there’s an image for you!”
Fr. Merz thinks back to Pope Benedict as “as a man blessed with many gifts, who used them as fully as he could, and who asked for help when he needed it.”
“Because of his sense of duty and stewardship, he was challenged to respond to hard and difficult realities which he would not have willingly chosen,” the priest stated. “But he did not run away. He responded as best he could. Perhaps, he would have chosen to be a professor his whole life, but the Church kept calling him elsewhere, and as an obedient son of the Church and a sincere devotee of the Blessed Mother ... he kept responding yes.
“Now,” Fr. Merz concluded, “we pray that all the work of his long life, every yes to Jesus, may be taken up and purified in the resurrection to eternal life on high with Christ Jesus.”