Benedict: The shy pope in the background

Despite his intelligence and gentleness, he chose to fade away. His courage and humility to retire from the papacy spoke volumes

'When you are with him, you have a sense that you are his only world, his eyes focused on you alone'—Cardinal Tagle (Photo from Vatican Media)

He had been hounded by numerous controversies in his lifetime, albeit undeservedly. To mention a few: being branded the “German Shepherd” or “God’s Rottweiler” during his stint as chief of the doctrinal office; shutting down several seemingly discordant voices of theologians and the like around the world; meeting howls of protest after his lecture in 2006 at the University of Regensburg; being branded a Hitler sympathizer in Germany, which, in that era, made it obligatory for every young person to be a member of the Nazi party; an uncompromising conservative and fearless traditionalist stance in matters of faith, morals, and rituals, and many more.

All these and more had depicted Benedict XVI as rather less likable before the world, at least in popular media. He had been hurt, too, for sure. But despite that and everything else, Benedict, in his heart, might have welcomed everything as part and parcel of his pastoral work as global leader, and his personal vocation as a believer and follower of Jesus Christ.

Pope Benedict would not have intended to please anyone other than the Lord himself. He would spontaneously shy away from the world and the limelight, as proven by his resignation from papal office and his seclusion in the monastery.

‘When you are with him, you have a sense that you are his only world, with his eyes focused on you alone’

When I was a seminarian, we used to get a glimpse of then Cardinal Ratzinger, acknowledged as one of the most brilliant theologians of the century, who would be Pope Benedict XVI, through the stories shared with us by Chito (now Cardinal Tagle), our long-time seminary rector in Tagaytay. Chito worked with Cardinal Ratzinger in the International Theological Commission. I will not forget how Chito would put Pope Benedict alongside Pope John Paul II: “Pope John Paul II would eat anything; Pope Benedict had a gastronomic regimen, but would devour anything made of dark chocolate. One was a robust mountaineer, while the other would rather stay at home with his piano. The Polish Pope gains energy from people, especially the multitudes; the German prelate, on the other hand, is such an introvert. Pope Benedict is naturally shy. But when you are with him, you have a sense that you are his only world, with his eyes focused on you alone.”

The Cebuano priest, Msgr. Jan Limchua (current member of the Pontifical Family, or one of those who live close to the Pope), recalled in his homily during the requiem Mass in Cebu how, when he met with Pope Benedict XVI, “he was more interested in me than I was in myself.” For this young Vatican official, such a gesture of Pope Benedict belied the public’s perception that he was cold, aloof, and rigid. On the contrary, he was always a father to his priests, always had time for them, listening to their pleas and visiting them in their parishes. “People misjudged you as enclosed in a palace, but you were a pastor according to the heart of God,” said Limchua.

While people may have indeed misjudged Pope Benedict, he nonetheless did not make any effort to be a darling before prying eyes. He stood for his convictions, for whatever was true. After all, what really mattered to this “humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord” was nothing else but the Truth. We must remember his motto—“Cooperatores Veritatis.”

I was privileged to get a closer look of Pope Benedict when I joined his mammoth audience as a student in Spain, not just once but thrice: in 2008, in Lourdes, France, during the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Mary’s appearance to St. Bernadette; at the Consecration of the Sagrada Familia Church in Barcelona in 2010, and during the World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011.

With the high-caliber intelligence and gentleness of the soul of Benedict, attending those triple momentous events was a real treat and feast for my mind and my spirit. How he elaborated on the virtue of smiling amid suffering and sickness, in his homily in Lourdes, was profound and top-notch. Said he, “In the very simple manifestation of tenderness that we call a smile, we grasp that our sole wealth is the love God bears us, which passes through the heart of her who became our Mother. To seek this smile is first of all to have grasped the gratuitousness of love; it is also to be able to elicit this smile through our efforts to live according to the word of her Beloved Son, just as a child seeks to elicit its mother’s smile by doing what pleases her.”

Suddenly, the vast open field of Madrid was transformed from frantic to solemn

What will forever remain very symbolic and iconic, however, was the vigil of the Pope with the young people of the world in Cuatro Vientos in Madrid. A “huracan” (typhoon) interrupted Pope Benedict’s address to the youth. After the storm had passed, the then 83-year-old pontiff returned and exposed the Blessed Sacrament. Suddenly, the vast open field of Madrid was transformed from frantic to solemn, from restlessness to peace and silence. Then and there, the focus had shifted. It was no longer on Pope Benedict, but on the Lord Jesus. For his part, Benedict turned his focus on the young people: “Your strength is stronger than the rain. Thank you. The Lord is sending us his blessings with the rain. With this, you are living by example.”

In effect, he was nowhere to be found; there was God and the youth of the world. Benedict had been eclipsed.

If it were a sport, we can say that Benedict’s favorite game was how to be eclipsed. He seemed to have perfected the play of fading away. He was just always in the background. He was Cardinal Josef Frings’ shadow as “peritus” (theological expert) during deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. He was proverbially sandwiched between his charismatic predecessor (Pope John Paul II) and his irrepressible successor (Pope Francis). Between these two gigantic figures, the introverted barrio boy from Bavaria could be reduced into a whatchamacallit. His courage and humility to retire from the papacy spoke volumes about his person and his soul. He opted to hide and confine himself to the monastery for a life of prayer and penance. And lest we forget, he had always been just a “little brother” to his “kuya” Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, three years his senior.

At 95, Pope Benedict XVI has faded away yet again, for the last time. In his last message, he said he had many reasons to be thankful for in his life. Also, he asked for forgiveness “for those he wronged in any way.” But he also asked “humbly” that despite all this “sins and shortcomings,” he be welcomed by God to heaven.

About author


Rev. Fr. Eugene S. Elivera, MA, SThD. is a priest of the Apostolic Vicariate of Puerto Princesa (Palawan). He earned licentiate and doctoral degrees in Moral Theology from Universidad de Navarra in Spain. His two books, ‘Morality of the Heart’ (Contextualized Moral Theology in the Philippine Setting) and ‘Heart of the Story’ (Moral Becoming in Ordinary Living), won the Catholic Mass Media Award in Theology (2013) and Inspirational (2018) categories, respectively. He is the Schools superintendent of the Apostolic Vicariate of Puerto Princesa and parish priest of San Nicolas de Tolentino Parish. He is also the (first) president of the Philippine Mental Health Association, Palawan chapter.

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