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Community reflects on Pope’s impact

Megan Doyle and Sam Stryker | Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Fr. Brian Daley first encountered Pope Benedict XVI when he was simply known as Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, a German theologian with a brilliant mind in the days after the Second Vatican Council.
Daley, who was pursuing a graduate degree in theology in Frankfurt, received a copy of Ratzinger’s lectures as one of his texts. The texts had not even been published yet, but Daley said those writings inspired him as a student.
“They were really hot stuff, they were not printed,” he said. “They were just kind of photocopied. … They were really exciting and wonderful stuff.”
Now, as the 85-year-old pope prepares to step down from the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Daley recalled his first encounters with the German theologian. Daley, now a theology professor, met Ratzinger in person on a retreat during those early years as a student. As Ratzinger and another retreat leader led discussions on the person of Christ, Daley said the future pope spoke informally and without notes.
“He said Mass for us every day,” Daley said. “That was a lovely meeting. He probably wouldn’t remember me … but I’ve always remembered him. He’s very personable, easy to get along with, not at all the figure the media sometimes presents.”
Years later, Daley approached the same man again in October 2012. This time, they were in the Vatican, and Pope Benedict XVI was presenting the professor with the 2012 Ratzinger Prize in Theology. The award recognized Daley’s work on early Christianity, which he said is also one of Benedict’s interests.
“It was a total surprise to me. … I was very moved to receive it, bowled over,” he said.
When Daley approached the pope at the award ceremony, he said Pope Benedict spoke with him in German, as they had spoken years before.
“He knew what I had been working on. … He knew about Notre Dame,” Daley said. “It was a very warm and cordial meeting. I was really delighted to meet him and humbled by the opportunity.”
While the pope steps down, Daley said Benedict’s legacy as a theologian will remain a defining factor of his tenure at the head of the Church.
“He is first and foremost a theologian, a really remarkable theologian, one of the great theologians of the Catholic Church,” Daley said. “People who know him well say this is what he loves to do.”
Another Notre Dame theology professor also recently visited the Vatican – department chair John Cavadini. Cavadini presented Benedict with a copy of a book he had edited titled “Explorations of Benedict XVI’s Theology.”
Cavadini described their meeting as “a huge honor” that he would never forget.
“It was a beautiful moment,” Cavadini said in an email interview. “He smiled and grasped my hand with his and thanked me. He seemed genuinely pleased.
“He seemed to smile too when he saw the imprint: University of Notre Dame.”
Cavadini said Monday’s announcement was surprising but admirable as the pope grew older. Benedict attributed his resignation to a lack of physical and mental strength to continue the job.
“I think it’s a beautiful example, to know when you can’t do a job to your own standards for the job, and not to cling to power,” he said.
The pope’s decision to step down was in some ways “a welcome precedent,” he said.
“After all, bishops are required to turn in their resignations at 75,” he said. “The pope is a unique case, so the policy should not simply transfer, but I think on the whole it makes it easier for someone to realize when maybe they are not performing at the level they themselves expect of others.”

The pope’s neighbors
Notre Dame students in the Rome study abroad program attend class approximately 15 minutes from the Vatican where the pope announced his decision Monday. The professors who lead their courses said the international shock at Benedict’s decision has been especially felt just outside his own doorstep.
Ada Bertini Bezzi, an Italian professor at John Cabot University, said the announcement was unexpected for her fellow Italian citizens preparing for their own government election on Feb. 24 and 25.
“This event is really incredible for everybody here in Rome,” she said. “We are in the middle of the election campaign, however this news was like a bomb for us. We are waiting for some more news.”
Bertini Bezzi said the initial reaction of many Roman citizens has been one of cynicism.
“People are asking, ‘Why?'” she said. “We do not believe he is really so sick, [so are] there any other reasons?”
Pier Paolo Sarram, a media professor at John Cabot University, also noted the timing of the pope’s resignation may have an impact on Italian politics in the weeks leading up to an election of both new political leaders and the Church’s election of a new pope. He said he was caught off guard by the pope’s resignation, describing the event as “unsettling.”
“It’s one of those ‘events’ that I think will be remembered as something truly out of the ordinary,” he said.
Sarram described the reaction of the Italian media as a “scramble for information” in the wake of the pope’s decision. He said Italian media tends to be “subservient” to Vatican narratives, and thus coverage between international media and national media has been very different.
“It is quite a shock channel surfing from the Italian channels to the BBC, CNN or even FOX as they speculate on possible scenarios for the resignation that would and are taboo on mainstream Italian media for the most part,” he said.

A new precedent
While the pope’s decision to step down from the head of the Church is not the first, there is no modern precedent for the decision. Pope Celestine V left the office in the 13th century, more than 700 years ago, and professor J. Matthew Ashley reflected in an email interview on this moment as an important one for the Church and the papacy.
“I think what it means for the Church is a healthy recognition that the papacy, like every vocation and role within the Church, is a gift from God,” he said. “It does not belong to the person, and it can be given up in a recognition that ultimately it is the Holy Spirit that guides the Church and not any one individual.”
Professor Scott Appleby, religious historian and director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, said in a statement Monday that Benedict acted “courageously” with his decision.
“He leaves behind a church still staggering from the sexual abuse crisis, weakened by bureaucratic infighting, curial scandals and papal gaffes, and facing a host of challenges – to which the pope alluded in his statement [Monday,]” he said.
But even at the head of a tumultuous modern Church, Appleby said Benedict wrote three “profound” encyclicals and devoted his energy to “‘a new evangelization,’ which the Church desperately needs.”
Theology professor Fr. Virgil Elizondo said the precedent Benedict sets when he steps down officially Feb. 28 can be a positive one for the Church.
“With all the medical advances, [the popes] will all live longer. … When you look at the responsibilities that man has as pope, they’re unbelievable,” Elizondo said. “So it does take somebody with energy, that he doesn’t get tired.”
Elizondo cited Benedict’s extensive theological writings as the pope’s most lasting legacy from his tenure.
“He is a very good theologian who got elected pope, and in the process became an even better theologian,” he said.
Benedict also paved the way for future popes to continue to embrace modern technology and changes, Elizondo said.
“This pope’s done Twitter, he’s got an iPad,” he said. “What’s going to be the next pope?”

Contact Megan Doyle at [email protected] and Sam Stryker at [email protected]