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“Jesus Christ is not just a book. He was and is our brother, our Lord.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said these words to me in Rome in November 2003, a year and a half before his election as Pope Benedict XVI. They capture the heart of the man I would meet seven more times, most recently in 2012, toward the end of his papacy. Pope Benedict will mainly be remembered as a theologian who strongly upheld Catholic teaching. But as I saw firsthand, his biggest focus wasn’t rules or right thinking. He was a true spiritual leader who wanted to help people forge a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.
To be sure, Pope Benedict’s reputation as a theological enforcer is well-deserved. Before becoming pope in 2005, he spent a half century immersed in Catholic doctrine. He became a professor in his 30s and spent two decades teaching theology in his homeland of Germany. In a surprise move for someone so young, Pope Paul VI made him an archbishop and cardinal in 1977, and just four years later, the still-new Pope John Paul II appointed him head of the Catholic Church’s top theological department.
It was there, in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that the future pope earned his reputation. With the modernizing spirit of the Second Vatican Council then less than two decades old, many Catholics and non-Catholics wanted the Church to change any number of unpopular positions. Yet Benedict vigorously defended the Church’s teaching on everything from secularism to sexual ethics. His prolific writings read like treatises, rebutting arguments point by point. Not for nothing was Joseph Ratzinger nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler.”
Yet as I saw when meeting the Cardinal, and again during our meetings while he was Pope, this intellectual zeal sprang from a deep love of the Lord. He believed in the person of Jesus Christ, and he wanted the world’s billion-plus Catholics to deepen their own belief and share it with others. He defended the Church’s teaching not for its own sake, but because following that teaching would empower people to fulfill the Christian call to live like Christ and love one’s neighbor.
I always walked away from my time with Pope Benedict with the feeling that I’d just listened to an evangelical minister, not the head of the Catholic Church. He started conversations quietly, yet he became more animated the more he talked about knowing Christ. His intellect was unmistakable – not least in his perfect grasp of English, albeit with a German accent – yet his faith was even more evident. I never felt like I was talking to God’s Rottweiler, but rather a son of God who wanted to know his father better.
Like the world, I was shocked when Pope Benedict stepped down in 2013 – the first pope to do so in 600 years. Since then, much has been made about the differences between the German pope and his Argentinian successor. Many see Pope Francis as the opposite of Benedict, if not a repudiation of much that Benedict said and did. But I don’t see it that way. Pope Francis is renowned for his care for the downtrodden, and Pope Benedict was motivated by the same desire to show and spread the love of Christ. His temperament and style were different, but Pope Benedict, like Pope Francis, was driven by the desire to bring people into relationship with the Lord.
That welcoming spirit was unmistakable in Pope Benedict’s presence. In fact, in our 2003 meeting, the first thing the future pope said to me was “welcome to the eternal city.” Now, surely, he has been welcomed into the true eternal city in heaven. I’m confident that because of Pope Benedict, and his unwavering commitment to the person of Christ, countless more people will follow him there in the fullness of time.
Tim Busch, Founder of Napa Institute
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The Napa Institute Summer Conference brings together some of the world’s most prominent Catholic and Christian thinkers each year to engage, encourage, and inspire the over 700 participants who gather from every corner of the country and around the world. This conference provides unique opportunities to build community, share ideas, and grow in friendship with some of the most effective Catholics leaders in the country.
On May 18, 2023, the Napa Institute co-hosted a talk with the Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC featuring special guest, Fr. Paul Scalia on how to love our enemies. As a result of the cult
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