Our April Visitor

Tell me about the Pope,” a Jewish friend said to me a few days ago, as he, his wife, and I stood in line waiting to move into a hotel dining room for a charity dinner. “Yes, please do,” his wife insisted. “We know he’s coming in April, but we really don’t know much about him.”

“Can we listen in?” asked a lady standing in front of us with her husband. “We’re Catholics, Cardinal; but I’m afraid we don’t know all we should about the Pope either.”

Suddenly the line began to move, and the two couples and I were assigned to different tables by a young lady at the door of the dining room. As we parted, I promised to send them an answer to their inquiries in writing. And here it is.

Joseph Alois Ratzinger, the 264th Successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ, was born on April 16, 1927, in a little town in Bavaria by the name of Marktl am Inn. It was Holy Saturday, and he was baptized that very day.

Joseph was the youngest of three children born to Joseph and Maria Ratzinger. His brother, Georg, is a priest, ordained on the same day as Joseph; and his sister, Maria, is unmarried. They were reared primarily in the village of Traunstein near the Austrian border, where their father was a police officer who made no secret of his contempt for the Nazi regime that took power in Germany in the mid-1930s.

At the age of 16, the future Pope was drafted into the anti-aircraft-corps of the German army. Two years later he was put into a prisoners-of-war camp for several months and upon his release entered the seminary along with his brother. On June 29, 1951, the two of them were ordained to the priesthood by Michael Cardinal Faulhaber, the Archbishop of Munich.

I 1953, Father Joseph Ratzinger obtained a doctorate in theology with a dissertation on St. Augustine and four years later completed a second dissertation on St. Bonaventure, which qualified him to teach on the university level. Thus it was from 1959 to 1977, he taught theology in the seminary of the Archdiocese of Munich and in four celebrated German universities-Bonn, Munster, TŸbingen and Regensburg. From 1962 to 1965, he also served as a “peritus” or theological adviser to Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne during the Second Vatican Council in Rome. Moreover, in 1972, he joined such eminent scholars as Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar in founding a journal of theology known as Communio, which continues to this day to enjoy the esteem of theologians across the world. Finally, in March of 1977, Professor Ratzinger was appointed Archbishop of Munich by Pope Paul VI.

With outstanding academic credentials and four years of service as the shepherd of a large Archdiocese, it came as no surprise when in November of 1981 Archbishop Ratzinger was chosen by Pope John Paul II to be the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office of the Roman Curia that concerns itself with matters theological. A year later, the new Prefect was named to the College of Cardinals, whose Dean he became in 2002.

Throughout his 24 years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger addressed himself to a host of issues that inevitably led to a good deal of criticism and controversy. They included “liberation theology” and its connection with Communist and atheistic ideologies, “religious indifferentism” which views one faith as valid as any other, and the suggestion in some quarters that Jesus Christ was not the one Lord and Savior of the world. In addition it fell to him to deal with the scandals that emerged from revelations of sexual misconduct on the part of certain members of the clergy and religious communities. All of these complex and delicate matters were treated with calm, precision and clarity, so much so that within a very short time the wise and gentle Prefect had won the admiration and plaudits of Catholics in every corner of the globe.

Accordingly, once again it came as no surprise when on April 19, 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected to succeed Pope John Paul II in a conclave that lasted but two days and required only four ballots. He took the name of Benedict because of his devotion to St. Benedict of Nursia, the Founder of the Benedictine Order, and his admiration for Pope Benedict XV, the Successor of St. Peter who heroically fought to preserve peace in Europe before World War I.

As Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict has issued two splendid Encyclical Letters, one on Charity (“Deus Caritas Est”) and another on hope (“Spe Salvi”). He has as well published a Post-Synodal Exhortation on the Eucharist (“Sacramentum Caritatis”) and a book on the early life of the Lord, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Add to all of this new legislation on the use of Latin in the liturgy (“Summorum Pontificum”) and countless addresses, homilies and reflections on a remarkably wide range of subjects from ecumenism and world poverty to education and religious life. Furthermore, he has all the while managed to fit into his incredibly heavy schedule “apostolic journeys” to Germany, Poland, Spain, Turkey, Brazil, Austria and various shrines in Italy, with plans for visits to the United States in April of this year and Australia in July.

Such then is a brief résumé of the life of Pope Benedict XVI. A complete and worthy biography will one day be written, but none will be truly complete without an explanation of what it means to be Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ and Supreme Shepherd of the Church. As Pope, Joseph Alois Ratzinger has succeeded in the office of St. Peter upon whom the Lord built his Church (cf. Matthew 16:18), whom the Lord ordered to “feed my lambs and feed my sheep” (cf. John 21:15-17), who was chosen by the Lord to “confirm the brethren” (cf. Luke 22:32), and who in the earliest years of the Church made authoritative and conclusive decisions about such key issues as the cessation of the liturgical and dietary laws of the Old Testament (cf. Acts 11:1-18) and the manner in which an Apostle was to be chosen to take the place of Judas Iscariot (cf. Acts 1:15-26). Or to put it more simply: Joseph Alois Ratzinger is a successor of the Prince of the Apostles who is to teach, sanctify and lead the faithful as St. Peter did in the beginning and 264 other Bishops of Rome have done over the past almost 2,000 years.

With all of this in mind, we cannot fail to appreciate what an extraordinary blessing it is to have the Holy Father in our midst as we complete the celebration of our Bicentennial Year in April. We will listen attentively to his plea for peace at the United Nations. We will meditate his message to Protestant and Orthodox leaders at St. Joseph’s parish in Manhattan. We will devoutly join him at Masses in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Yankee Stadium. We will rejoice with him as he meets with young people, seminarians and future religious at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers. And we will be united with him in spirit as he prays at the scene of the horror of September 11, 2001.

Thus, when he boards the plane for Rome on April 20th, we will not only be better informed about him, as the two couples mentioned at the outset sought to be. We will also be close to the Lord, by Whose grace we will have been made stronger in faith, more devout in prayer and energized in that hope which our revered visitor has identified as the theme and objective of his pastoral journey to New York and the nation.

Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York