It’s old news, really: a week old already. The current Pope Benedict XVI will be resigning. This is news-worthy for several reasons, one being that a pope has not resigned in hundreds of years, another being that the pope is a religious leader for much of the world’s population.
But, I’m not here to speculate. I’m here to reflect.
I love this pope. I love his warm, quiet smile. I love his talent for words. I love this letter that he wrote to Baby Jesus when he was seven-years-old:
Dear Baby Jesus, quickly come down to earth. You will bring joy to children. Also bring me joy.
I would like a Volks-Schott (a prayer book–Latin on one side, German on the other), green clothing for Mass (he liked to pretend he was a priest…and apparently needed the correct clothing for ordinary time) and a heart of Jesus. I will always be good. Greetings from Joseph Ratzinger
I was a senior in high school when Pope John Paul II, the previous pope, passed away. We were driving home on a rainy day when I heard that there was to be a new pope. Immediately the media began speculating that he would be harsh and tough. But then this new German Pope wrote us a letter titled Deus Caritas Est, God is love. And so began his papacy, with the reminder that God is love and that God loves us.
I read his letter. It was the first encyclical I’d ever read, and I remember that it stretched my brain a bit, but I ended with his heart-felt prayer to the Blessed Virgin and I was convinced: I liked this Pope, I liked his writings.
I saw him in Germany for World Youth Day in the summer. I was a tad bit discouraged because I wanted to see the blessed Pope John Paul II before he died but, that was not what happened. Instead I slept in a damp field under an overcast sky with my sister, near the toilets. That World Youth Day changed all previous notions and experiences of “church” as I sat with some previous-strangers, but now friends, shivering in sleeping bags, all huddled around my tiny camp-radio as we listened to a woman’s voice translate the Holy Father’s prayers. We were beneath a large screen and watched as youth of the world welcomed and performed for Pope Benedict XVI.
There were millions gathered in that field that night. We had been given vigil candles in our pilgrim-kits, so we lit them and listened to the translations in silence. Then, the radio broke up for a few quick seconds. I fiddled with it, and a man’s voice came on. I was surprised that the translator had changed until I realized–that wasn’t the translator, that was the Holy Father! Speaking, to us, in English! I cheered briefly and tried to listen and take his words to heart.
Later, after we returned home, he wrote another letter, Spe Salvi, “Saved in Hope.” I printed it from the Vatican’s website, and I read it in a shaft of sunlight in my bedroom. I remember being so touched that I prayed fervently for hope like the pope wrote about. It was here that the Pope first told me about Josephine Bakhita. Her words and story stunned me: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Read the letter.Three years later I traveled to Australia, this time with my family in tow, to see him again and to experience World Youth Day “down under.” One day as we were walking through the city we were told by some Australian police that an unofficial Pope escort would be traveling by soon. So we waited and waited and ate some strange Australian treats. And, eventually, a gaggle of white, secure sedans drove past with serious men in sunglasses sitting in the front seats. Towards the end of the group of cars there was the shy, smiling face of the Holy Father. We waved. I think he blessed us. And then we kept walking.
I think that it was that spring that I was somehow told the Pope’s birthday was approaching…and I decided to write him a card. I wrote it on some of my favorite vintage stationary, the one with my initial and some colorful daisies. “Do you remember me from World Youth Day?” I jokingly asked before wishing him birthday happiness.
A few weeks later I received a letter in the mail…from the VATICAN. No joke. It wasn’t from the Holy Father, but it was from his secretary. The letter thanked me for the card, assured me of the Holy Father’s prayers (WHAT NOW) and included a prayer card with the Holy Father’s image upon it. I hung it in our kitchen. I think it’s still there. 🙂
Finally, in 2011, I took my own group of pilgrims to experience faith and Jesus and World Youth Day.
This is, in retrospect, because of the faith and hope entrusted to me from previous World Youth Days. Thanks, oh family of faith.
I was a World Youth Day veteran at that point. And when the Holy Father was set to drive past I told my pilgrims, “No” and that we would stay away from the crowds and watch him arrive via the big screens that the city had set up thankyouverymuch. But then, two of my first-timers looked at me with puppy-like disbelief and said, “Really?”
And I caved. And sat on the dirty street and then stood on a lamppost for the next few hours.
They deserved to see the Pope, guys. I have no regrets.
Eventually it was the night vigil and 2+ million people gathered to see the Holy Father. Keep in mind, we gathered on an air strip…not a speck of shade. Reports say it was 109 degrees that day. I saw people wipe out from heat exhaustion all around me.
Somehow, I had been chosen to be in “close audience” with the pope. This didn’t mean I, say, was able to kiss his ring or anything. This just meant when I saw him he would a bit smaller than my pinkie finger…as opposed to barely seeing him at all.
He arrived. We prayed. And then…it started storming. It was a fierce storm, one that we later learned cause some structures to collapse. The rain was SHOOTING towards the stage–towards the Holy Father. Seriously, my back was SOAKED but my lap wasn’t even wet. I remember staring at him, this holy, old man, facing the bullets of rain coming towards him. I remember thinking, “You should leave. Holy Father, go. Take care of yourself. We’ll be in this field when you return.”
But, he didn’t. His little red skullcap blew far away, probably never to be retrieved. And, he stood there, receiving the rain shooting towards him, standing with us, leading our prayers. I remember wondering about the things he must address on a daily basis, the elements and critics that harassed him. And still, he stood.
I sat in the plastic lawn chair set up for the members of the “close audience,” hugged my knees to my chest, and prayed with the Holy Father. I prayed for my life, his intentions, and our church.
I prayed if I should take another group to World Youth Day 2013, and I felt that I shouldn’t. So, I haven’t.
This past winter, though, I read the letter he wrote to the youth for this year’s World Youth Day. I read it in a still chapel while it was in the wee hours of the morning, dark and chilly. Is it possible to tear up that much over something that’s not a story about a puppy who dies?? Apparently.
What I really wanted to do today was to find one snippet that was good, one that I could share with. But, I kept underlining too many things and so my plan didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.
But I do have this:
I would like to emphasize two areas where your missionary commitment is all the more necessary. Dear young people, the first is the field of social communications, particularly the world of the internet. As I mentioned to you on another occasion: “I ask you to introduce into the culture of this new environment of communications and information technology the values on which you have built your lives. […] It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this ‘digital continent’.”
Gosh, I’m going to miss him. I’m sure the new Pope will be blessed, too, but give me a second to love on this one.
I’m going to miss his compassionate, thoughtful responses to issues that others might dismiss (remember the whole condom brouhaha?). I’m going to miss his well-crafted encyclicals. I’m going to miss his giving spirit to the people of the church.
I love you, Pope Benedict XVI.
Thank you for your service to the church. Thank you for your care for your flock.
Thanks for standing in the rain with your young people when you should have left. In that moment, I knew what love was.