Pope Benedict was elected around 9 a.m. Pacific Time. I know this because I was studying at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon at that moment in time, preparing for the Catholic priesthood. Between morning Mass and our first class, the monastery bells began to ring. Knowing what those bells meant, seminarians and faculty gathered in front of whatever TV we could find, turned on CNN, and waited to see who had been elected. The reaction among the faculty when the name Joseph Ratzinger was announced was mixed. Some were excited, as were most of the seminarians. Others were quieter, concerned he would be too conservative. Once the cheering, celebrating, and arguing was over, I went to class. There my Benedictine monk philosophy professor told us he was concerned because Cardinal Ratzinger was such a liberal.
This anecdote illustrates two things: First, the excitement of a papal election; and, second, the diversity that exists within the Catholic Church – and even within the faculty of a single seminary. Pope Benedict’s legacy reflects this diversity, which is why our world has such a difficult time pinning him down.
Was he conservative? He stood against abortion, gay marriage, and the ordination of women.
Was he liberal? He spoke for the poor, condemned the Iraq war, and had solar panels installed at the Vatican, hoping to make Vatican City the world’s first carbon neutral state.
He argued against philosophical relativism and defended Catholic dogma. And he sought common ground with other Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists – and anyone willing to talk seriously.
There are two ways of looking at such a man. Maybe he was confused, unwilling to pick a side, trying to please everyone. This is doubtful, because each of these positions upset many people. Instead, maybe he followed a master who makes liberal/conservative categories superfluous. In his own words, “[B]eing 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”. Maybe he was a man in love, and the one he loved explodes our limiting human categories.
I travelled to Madrid with thirty Saskatoon college students in the summer of 2011 to see Pope Benedict at what we now know was his last World Youth Day. These students represented all sides of the Catholic Church, from daily Mass-goers to Christmas and Easter (if that) attendees. Seeing the Pope in person, one word stood out for them: humility. Whether he greeted the Spanish royal family, knelt in prayer, hid from the rain under a white, papal umbrella, or was applauded by a crowd of one million, the impression remained: humility. Many of them were surprised. The harsh, doctrinaire image they had imbibed from CBC specials and their religious-studies courses seemed far removed from the smiling, grandfatherly man who had come to see them.
Humility is a good word for this Pope, but for me another word better sums up his legacy. That word is love. His first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), ends with the following words, as a prayer to Mary, “Show us Jesus. Lead us to him. Teach us to know and love him, so that we too can become capable of true love and be fountains of living water in the midst of a thirsting world.” His first papal word was a prayer that Christians would know the love of Jesus and be able, in that love, to love the world.
His last Urbi et Orbi Christmas message contains what is, for me, his greatest summary of the Christian faith: “Only the God who is love, and the love which is God, could choose to save us in this way.” By “this way,” the Pope means the way of Incarnation – the way of taking on our humanity, living our life, and dying our death.
To a world that didn’t always seem to care, Pope Benedict asked, What if this is true? What if God exists? What if this God loves? What if this love became man to be near you and to bring you forever to himself? Most importantly, if this love is true what can we do but live for it?
As a young priest, less than two years into my ministry, this is the legacy I take from my Holy Father. He challenged us to walk the way of love. This was his way, but more importantly it’s the way of Jesus. It’s the way of the Gospel. And it’s the way all Christians strive, stumbling, to follow.
Rev. Matthew Ramsay was ordained in June, 2011, for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon. He currently serves four small country parishes centered on Kerrobert, Sask. He tweets @frramsay.