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This updated version includes further insight from Monsignor David Cox and Benedictine Father Pachomius Meade.
A seminarian who would become Father Jason Doke was serving at a Mass offered by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Basilica, during an official gathering of the world’s cardinals.
“I remember standing next to Pope Benedict behind the papal altar, under the baldachino, and thinking, ‘Here I am, right next to the successor of St. Peter and right over St. Peter’s bones, and I’m looking out and seeing most of the cardinals of the world,’” said Fr. Doke, pastor of St. Martin Parish in St. Martins and moderator of the curia for the Jefferson City diocese.
“Just his presence, knowing his role as a Periti (theological advisor) at the Second Vatican Council and what he had done at the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith for many years, and seeing him as pope — that had a huge impact on me,” stated Fr. Doke.
He and many others are dusting off their recollections of the retired pontiff, who died on Dec. 31 at age 95.
Pope Benedict, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, led the Church for nearly eight years. 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 often think of the way God molded Joseph Ratzinger — what a history he lived,” said Monsignor Marion Makarewicz, pastor of Mary Immaculate Parish in Kirksville and the Mission of St. Rose of Lima in Novinger.
“No one at that time had greater credibility than Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, as they both experienced firsthand all the worst of humanity in the 20th century,” said Msgr. Makarewicz, who studied in Rome in the 1980s. “Their faith in God never wavered, their hope for humanity and their love of Jesus was always evident.”
Msgr. Makarewicz was once visiting Vatican City with his brother and sister-in-law, and they happened to cross paths in St. Peter’s Square with then-Cardinal Ratzinger.
“I introduced us, and he was very gracious,” Msgr. Makarewicz recalled. “He was by himself, just walking toward the CDF. I pointed out that he was a pretty important person to still have to walk to work. He said that ‘one has to get to work somehow, and the walk is short.’”
Msgr. Makarewicz said it was clear early on that “while Pope St. John Paul was such an imposing figure and beloved pastor, he had a solid collaborator in Cardinal Ratzinger.”
“Certainly, JPII was a great teacher, but he had Cardinal Ratzinger to back him up in challenging times,” the priest stated.
“A serene heart”
Monsignor Robert A. Kurwicki said it was no surprise to hear that Pope Benedict’s last words, in German, were “Jesus, I love You.”
“I absolutely, totally can believe that, because his reputation for being pious was well known,” said Msgr. Kurwicki, pastor of St. Michael Parish in Russellville and vicar general for the Jefferson City diocese.
Msgr. Kurwicki met Pope Benedict while joining Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos and the other bishops of this region on their regularly scheduled “ad limina” visit to the Vatican.
“The ‘aura’ around (Pope Benedict) was one of coming into the presence of a deeply respected wisdom figure — like Moses of the Old Testament,” Msgr. Kurwicki recalled.
“Pope St. John Paul was pure charisma,” the priest observed. “But with this man, it was like meeting holy wisdom.”
The first thing Msgr. Kurwicki could think to say upon greeting the pope and venerating his ring, was, “Thank you for your sacrifices.”
“And he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘God bless you,’” the priest recalled.
Pope Benedict, who was 85 at the time, was visibly exhausted.
“Yet, he kept up the manners and protocol perfectly,” Msgr. Kurwicki recalled. “He was about showing people respect. He could have met with us as a group and that would have been fine, but he took the time to receive each person individually, shake hands and be in a photograph with each of us.”
“I wish now that I would have embraced him!” Msgr. Kurwicki said. “Unthinkable protocol error, but the emotion was present. Even more so today.”
Father Jeremy Secrist, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City, also traveled to the Vatican with Bishop Gaydos for that ad limina visit.
“I was just struck by (Pope Benedict’s) kindness and patience,” said Fr. Secrist. “Being in (his) presence, there was just this sense of a serene heart in love with the Lord.”
“To greater communion”
Father Dylan Schrader, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Westphalia and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Folk, traveled to New York during Pope Benedict’s 2008 visit to the United States.
“What I remember most was his kindness to seminarians and the encouragement he gave to priests,” said Fr. Schrader.
The priest is convinced that humility marked Pope Benedict’s papacy.
“He gave the impression of someone with personal faith in Jesus, who was trying to live in obedience to Him,” said Fr. Schrader. “Benedict didn’t treat the papacy like it was about him. He believed the Catholic faith and was convinced that it’s good news for people, not something that needs to be revised or something to be embarrassed about, but something that needs to be shared.
“As a result,” the priest continued, “he was very generous with inviting people to greater communion with the Church and recognizing the legitimacy of diverse expressions of the same faith. He recognized that if we’re secure in the non-negotiable, unchanging truths of the Catholic faith, we don’t have to feel threatened by legitimate diversity.”
Father Stephen Jones, diocesan director of stewardship, was formerly an Anglican priest.
“No other pope, except perhaps St. JPII (whose own death lit a spark in me which eventually resulted in my seeking full communion with the Catholic Church) has had such a profound impact on my life,” Fr. Jones wrote in a Dec. 31, 2022, Facebook post.
“Oft-maligned due to the fact that our world constantly misunderstands motive and truth, he was — in reality — a gentle man, a gentle soul,” Fr. Jones wrote. “Armed with an exceptional intellect, he was a brilliant theologian who probably would’ve rather passed his days writing, teaching, and playing piano than shepherding the Church.”
In April of 2012, Pope Benedict signed the rescript that dispensed Fr. Jones — who with his wife and children had become Catholic in 2010 — from the promise of celibacy and allowed him to be ordained a deacon and priest in the Catholic Church.
“For that,” said Fr. Jones, “I will be always grateful.”
“I’d be honored”
“Requiescat in pace, Benedict XVI,” Benedictine Father Pachomius Meade, a Palmyra native who previously ministered at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Columbia, posted on social media Dec. 31. “Still a source of clarity in unpacking the treasury of the Church’s reflection on the Christian mystery that will be a gift for the next millennium. He will be missed but our hope is that his prayers may continue to assist the Church.”
In 2000, Salisbury native Randall Meissen, later to become a priest of the Legionnaires of Christ, took part in a Jubilee Year pilgrimage to Rome, where he got to meet then-Cardinal Ratzinger.
“When he talked to our group, he said young people need to embrace the Church’s mission of evangelization,” Fr. Meissen told The Catholic Missourian in 2008. “And coming from him, I was like, ‘Wow! Sure! If you say so!’”
In that meeting, the future priest recognized the pope’s soft-spokenness and humility.
“There were several of us there — I think three or four — who had picked up a book he had written,” said Fr. Meissen, who is chaplain of St. Leo University in Florida. “I handed my book to the cardinal and asked if he would be able to sign it. ... He took the book and looked at me and said, ‘I’d be honored.’ I still have that book.”
Monsignor David Cox was able to observe Pope Benedict up-close and candid while serving as a minister of Holy Communion at Pope Benedict’s Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square in 2010.
After Mass, the Pope entered St. Peter’s Basilica just as Msgr. Cox and three other priests were returning to the sacristy with the Most Blessed Sacrament.
There, still caught up in the awesome Sacrifice he had just offered before hundreds of thousands of people on the most joyful day of the Church year, Pope Benedict proceeded within a few steps of Msgr. Cox.
“He’s just a very quiet, unassuming personality,” observed Msgr. Cox, who is pastor of St. Stanislaus Parish in Wardsville and St. Margaret of Antioch Parish in Osage Bend.
The priest admired the courage that it took for Pope Benedict to say he could no longer manage the office of leadership as the Holy Father.
“He was thinking of the good of the whole Church,” said Msgr. Cox. “How difficult that must of been when the previous pope, John Paul II gave such a powerful witness of guiding in spite of his weakness and decrepit state of heath.”
Once Pope Benedict resigned, he accepted a self-imposed isolation.
“What else could he do? There is no place for a former pope,” Msgr. Cox noted. “He would have been badgered for his opinion regarding every decision Pope Francis might make. So instead, he became a quiet hermit and prayed for the Church.”
Pope Francis often reminded the Church of the silent presence of Pope Benedict in the Vatican and of his prayers.
“Even in his silence Pope Benedict, was a powerful strength and faithful witness to the faith,” Msgr. Cox stated. “His silence spoke loudly of the kind of man of God that he was.”
Pathways to encounter
Jesuit Father Matthew Monnig believes Pope Benedict’s 2008 message to the U.S. Catholic bishops epitomized his approach to life.
“He was talking about the crisis of vocations and how to address it,” said Fr. Monnig, a Helias Catholic High School graduate who is now an assistant professor of New Testament studies at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.
“He said that what we need to do about vocations is to pray,” the priest recalled. “Not just in the sense of praying for vocations but also teaching young people how to pray.
“Because it’s in praying that they encounter the living Lord,” said Fr. Monnig, paraphrasing Pope Benedict.
“And it is by having that relationship with Him that they are able to discover God’s will in their life and be open to serving in a priestly or religious vocation.”
Fr. Monnig was studying in Rome during Pope Benedict’s papacy.
“I very much enjoyed being able to attend his Masses and weekly audiences,” the priest recalled.
As a scholar of Sacred Scripture, Fr. Monnig has been heavily influenced by Pope Benedict’s approach to biblical studies and his call for renewal of biblical scholarship in the Church.
In 1988, as Cardinal Ratzinger, the future pope gave a lecture titled “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis.”
“He talked about the deficiencies of many contemporary approaches to the Bible, and stated the need to find a distinctively Catholic hermeneutic of faith,” said Fr. Monnig. “I’ve tried very hard to take that to heart in my own life and teaching as a biblical scholar.”
What impressed Fr. Monnig most about Pope Benedict was a point he repeated numerous times in various contexts: “Our faith is not a doctrine or a philosophy or a set of ideas. Our faith is in a person, Jesus Christ.”
“You could see that Pope Benedict’s life was rooted in an actual living person, Whom he encountered in Scripture, in the Word, in the Church and in the Liturgy,” said Fr. Monnig.
That, he believes, is why Pope Benedict had such reverence for the Mass.
“He understood it as being an encounter with Christ,” the priest said.
Fr. Doke admired Pope Benedict for many years.
“He’s the first pope I’ve seen go full cycle — watching on TV as he came out onto the loggia, getting to meet him, and now he’s off to his eternal reward,” the priest noted.
As a seminarian in Rome, Fr. Doke attended numerous events at which Pope Benedict presided.
At one such event, Fr. Doke entered the massive St. Peter’s Basilica and took a seat near the back of an aisle through which the pope would be passing in procession.
“There were two kids sitting in front of me with their parents,” the priest recalled. “And as he came out over by Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta,’ he sees those kids and walks right over to them. He was standing about three feet from me.”
In 2010, for the 150th anniversary of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, where Fr. Doke was preparing for Priesthood, Pope Benedict gave a private audience to the seminarians and greeted each of them, including Fr. Doke.
For the Mass with Pope Benedict during the 2012 consistory, each of the altar servers presented one of the pope’s vestments to him as he put them on for Mass.
“I carried his alb to him,” Fr. Doke recalled, referring to the white vestment priests wear beneath the more decorative chasuble for Mass.
Fr. Doke had been ordained a transitional deacon by the time Pope Benedict announced in 2013 that he would relinquish the papacy.
As such, Fr. Doke was chosen to be one of the deacons who helped distribute ashes at the pope’s Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.
“Any Mass that you are assisting with that is celebrated by the Holy Father is always something very special,” Fr. Doke recalled. “But this was also Pope Benedict’s last public Mass, which added that much more emotion.”
A few weeks later, on Feb. 28, 2013, Fr. Doke watched the helicopter depart from the papal residence, as the newly resigned pope emeritus rode off into the sunset.
“Quite literally,” said Fr. Doke. “Papal-style.”
In light of Pope Benedict’s passing, Fr. Doke suggests offering prayers “first in thanksgiving for the life he led and the ability to overcome the obstacles of his early Priesthood and difficulties during World War II, and for the repose of his soul, and for the Church, which he loved very much.”