This week Pope Benedict XVI is visiting us in the United States. His visit is a great blessing to us and to our country. But what is Pope Benedict like? In this lesson we will get to know him a bit better as a person. We will also look at his mission as our Holy Father, and present a few ideas about what he might say to us as young people.
Growing Up in Tough Times
Joseph Ratzinger was born on April 16, 1927 in Marktl am Inn, Germany. That area of Germany is called Bavaria and is known for the strong Catholic faith of its people and their contagious joy.
This joy was truncated, however, when Pope Benedict was only six years old. Adolf Hitler took over Germany in 1933 and eventually launched the country into World War II. Joseph’s father, a retired policeman, opposed the Nazi regime, and later as a teen Joseph himself refused to join the Hitler Youth organization, even though this meant he would be given less financial help by the government for his studies.
However, a teacher, who was afraid young Joseph would be punished for his refusal, secretly enrolled Joseph in the Hitler Youth organization. Still, Joseph refused to go to the training sessions. He was lucky the Nazis did not retaliate.
Faith and Family
Joseph’s family was poor, but they had a strong love for each other which kept them together and even through austere times. He had an older brother and an older sister with whom he was very close. His sister died a few years ago, but his brother is still alive and is also a priest.
His parents had a very strong faith, and Joseph began to experience a strong love for Christ and for his Catholic faith from a young age.
Teen Seminary Terminated
He testifies that “the next two years were very difficult.” Some of his companions from the seminary were killed in front of his eyes. Many other friends died in the war as well. He narrowly escaped death himself. At the end of the war all the soldiers were taken prisoners, but eventually he was able to return home.
As a priest, bishop, cardinal, and now as Pope, Joseph Ratzinger has often spoken out about the evils of the Nazi system.
First Contact with Americans
Interestingly, young Joseph first met Americans when he was a prisoner at the end of World War II. The Americans, as victors of the war, ran the prison camp where he was processed. He was impressed by their fairness and kindness.
He was also impressed by how America poured millions of dollars into rebuilding Germany after World War II when it could have exacted a heavy revenge instead. American Cardinal William Levada, who helps Pope Benedict in the Vatican says, “He’s of a generation that remembers, gratefully.”
Gift for Theology
Young Joseph Ratzinger resumed his studies for the priesthood immediately after his release, even though his old seminary had been destroyed by the war.
He was ordained a priest when he was 24. Even during his seminary years it was clear that he had a special gift for the study of the faith (theology), and so he was asked to become a professor at the seminary and then at the university.
He served the Church many years as a theology professor, studying and instructing others on different points of Catholic teaching. His classes were very popular among the students. The university students were attracted by the combination of depth and simplicity in his classes and by the love for Christ that his explanations stirred in them. He very much loved his work as professor.
During the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) he was named a special consultor to the bishops, in spite of the fact that he was much younger than almost all the other experts.
At the age of 50, much to his surprise, Pope Paul VI asked him to head the large archdiocese of Munich, Germany. He was consecrated as archbishop, and a month later was named a cardinal.
In 1981, when he was 54, Pope John Paul II asked him to take a difficult position in Rome as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
t was not a job he wanted, because it often entails receiving vicious criticism, but he knew this was the way Christ had called him to serve the Holy Father.
This responsibility gave him a special role of answering questions on how to be faithful to Catholic teachings. He worked very closely with the Pope John Paul II in this area. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was one of the projects that he and his commission worked on for six years.
Unimpressed with Himself
What is our Holy Father like as a person? The first word used by those who know him is always “humble”. As cardinal, one could often see him walking across St. Peter’s Square on his way home or on his way to a meeting with the Pope, stopping to greet anyone who approached him along the way, and often giving directions to those who did not even know who he was.
As Pope he has surprised the world by his unassuming nature. People love to come to see him in Rome and receive his blessing. They realize he is a truly holy man who brings us closer to God.
True Spiritual Fatherhood
Pope Benedict XVI understands that a true father gives everything he is and has to care for his children. The word “Pope” comes from the Greek language and means father or dad. We call him the Holy Father because he is the representative of Christ and is an image of the fatherhood of God.
A father is the one who can help us when we have an important question, or when we are confused about something. Through his teaching at the university level, his kind advice to students, his books and articles, his work in helping Pope John Paul II, , and now through his preaching and writing as pope, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, he has always been there to counsel and instruct in the truth. He continues this mission of counsel today as our spiritual father.
A good father is brave, and unafraid of anybody when it comes to protecting us. He knows how to recognize evil and how to recognize good, and he is there to give us advice and guidance. Even in the face of criticism, he knows how to stand up for what is right, and teaches us to do so as well.
A Hero in Hard TimesA father also believes in us and builds our confidence in who we are. Our culture often invites us to destroy the rules of good and evil and only follow the waves of feelings, even when this can lead to emptiness and death.
Pope Benedict believes that we can do better than this, and hopes in us as the force that can transform society. He always speaks to us of Christ, of the truth, and of the noble ideals we can attain.
Looking for Young People
Even though Pope Benedict will be in this country only five days, and has many other important encounters with political and religious leaders, he is dedicating April 19th in a special way to youth. What will Pope Benedict talk about in his encounter with us?
We cannot know for sure. This is a Pope of surprises, and he always has something new and powerful to say to us. Nevertheless, here is a small list of ideas to watch for:
- Look to Christ as our Lord and best friend. Talk with him. Learn from him. Make him our most intimate companion. We can only win when we take Christ more deeply into our lives.
- Be brave and challenge the culture around us. Challenge it with the love and truth of Christ.
- Live charity. Only love can save the world.
- Live hope. As Christians, we can face difficult circumstances because we know that, whatever happens to us, we are definitively loved by Christ, and we are awaited by this love. The world needs Christian hope.
- Tell the Good News about human life to the world. Promote a culture that respects the dignity of every human life, from conception until natural death. Life is always a treasure. Help the world rediscover this truth.
- Build a culture that respects the environment. Keep in mind that the environment is not only material. It is also spiritual. Help create a human ecology in our culture.
A Present for the Pope
The Holy Father wants to show us how much he loves young people. His visit is a small gift to us. There is a gift we can give him in return. We can give him is our hearts and our hands. Yes, our best “thank you” to Our Holy Father will be putting our faith into action in our lives, as he has shown us. Our country and our world will be a caught on fire if we do this, a fire that will change hearts and history.
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church … I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 16:18)
Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching… As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. ( 2 Timothy 4:2-5)
Pope QuotesToday, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. ( Benedict XVI, April 24, 2005)
880 When Christ instituted the Twelve, he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them.
881 The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock.
882 The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.
86 Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devoutly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.
Saints and Heroes
A Leader in Difficult Times
St Gregory the Great, Pope, Doctor of the Church (entered heaven in 604)
Gregory was born into an important family of ancient Rome, and his family was devoutly Christian. Unfortunately, invaders from northern Europe, plagues (deadly diseases) and widespread violence had reduced Rome, once the center of the Empire, to a broken down backwash. As a young adult Gregory took up a career in civil service, doing all he could to restore order and prosperity to Rome and its surrounding townships.
But soon the call to serve God alone became too strong to resist, so he gave his fortune to the city and turned his family’s large home into a monastery (a place where monks live, pray, work, and study). He was happy there for three years, but he was brought back into public affairs when the Pope sent him as ambassador on a difficult mission. His efforts met with success, but his heart desired to go back to a life dedicated to God and prayer.
When the Pope died, however, Gregory’s zeal, intelligence, and charity made him the obvious choice for the new Pope, which he became in 590. His leadership led the suffering city through more invasions, plagues, and famines, while at the same time he helped make Catholic culture a source of betterment for society throughout the Middle Ages.
Above all, he strived to please and honor God by pouring himself out in service of his Kingdom. He never rested, even though he suffered from chronic health problems. One of his last actions was to send a heavy cloak to a poor bishop who had difficulty making it through the cold winters. Even today his writings are studied by Catholics in order to gain light and strength. (Adapted from www.collegecompass.org)
Pope Helped Her Clarify Her Vocation
Saint Katherine Drexel, Foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (entered heaven on March 3, 1955)
Katherine’s father was one of America’s great bankers, but from the get-go, he knew that any wealth he acquired was simply a loan (from God, that is), and he always looked to invest it in eternity. And he taught his three daughters to do the same. Katharine’s older sister Elizabeth founded a Pennsylvania trade school for orphans, and her younger sister founded a liberal arts and vocational school for poor African Americans in Virginia. And then there was Katherine.
A family trip west sparked her vocation. They visited the Native American reservations, and she was scandalized by the injustice and poverty they had to endure. Later, she saw how the freed African Americans suffered similar injustice and discrimination. Soon Katherine decided to use her inheritance to serve these Native and African Americans. So she started up missions and schools.
At one point she went to visit Pope Leo XIII in Rome in order to ask the Holy Father for missionaries to come staff her schools. But the Pope asked her why she didn’t simply become a missionary herself. His words touched her heart and gave her light. She decided to give her entire life to God and others. With the help of a bishop, she began a community of nuns and became one herself. By the time of her death, 60 institutions dedicated to education and charity had sprung up, along with the religious order she had begun in order to staff these schools and institutes and in order fill these institutions with Christ’s charity, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. They even started a university which still exists today.
Those who knew Katherine were always impressed by her charity and serene joy. There is no joy that compares to the joy of loving Christ with our whole self, holding nothing back. (Adapted from www.collegecompass.org)
Believe – 1) to have a firm religious faith 2) to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy or ability of someone
Brave – having courage; dauntless
Calling – a vocation (from God) or strong inner prompting to a particular course of action
Cardinal – A high official in the Roman Catholic Church, ranking next to the Pope. Every cardinal is appointed by the Pope, and assists and advises the Holy Father in the government of the Church. When a pope dies, the College of Cardinals elects the new pope.
Challenge –a summons that tries to encourage action and response; a calling to account or into question
Charity – the love of God for humanity; love for one’s fellow human beings
Counsel – advice given, especially as a result of consultation
Depth – the quality of having profound insight or full knowledge; the quality of being complete or thorough
Dignity – worthiness; nobility or elevation of character
Environment – 1) the complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors, such as climate, soil and living things, that act on an ecological community and help determine its form and survival. 2) the combination of social and cultural conditions that influence the life of an individual or community.
Faith – personal relationship with God; trust in God
Faithful – steadfast in affection or allegiance; firm in adherence to promises or to duty
Gift – something given voluntarily without charge; present
Good News – the message that God loves us and is close to us; the message of God’s love which Jesus Christ (God himself in the person of God the Son) brought; the teachings of Christ; the freedom from sin and death brought by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
Gratitude – consciousness of benefit received; expressing thankfulness or appreciation
Guidance – the direction provided by someone who is familiar with a route and leads another’s way
Holy – dedicated entirely to God; someone (especially God) who is worthy of dedication and trust because of his goodness and righteousness.
Hope – trust in God; trust that God wants the best for us; confidence that Jesus waits for us in heaven and accompanies us on earth; Hope is one of the three theological virtues given to us at baptism.
Human Ecology – respect for nature and for our environment not only on a physical level, but also by means of an upright moral life
Humble – not proud or haughty; unpretentious; docile to God’s voice; readiness to say “yes” to God (like Christ and Mary).
Instruct – to give knowledge, to teach, train; to provide with authoritative information or advice
Joy – 1) a state of happiness or felicity; 2) one of fruits of the Holy Spirit listed by St. Paul in Galatians 5:22. Joy is the result of seeing and doing things from God’s perspective and from his love, influenced by his Spirit.
Kindness – help or affection arising from sympathy, love, and forbearance.
Love – 1) a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person: Kindness, respect, and generosity towards others 2) love for God; love of others from God’s point of view.
Mission – a task with which a person or group is charged; the act of sending (someone to do something); the ministry of spreading the faith or helping others
Noble – possessing outstanding qualities; very good or excellent
Protect – to shield or cover from injury or destruction, guard
Recognize (discern) – to perceive clearly, realize; to perceive to be something or someone previously known.
Respect – an act of giving particular attention: consideration; a high or special regard: esteem
Simplicity – clarity, directness of expression; being uncomplicated or uncompounded
Spiritual – relating to the immaterial part of the person; relating to things affecting the spirit or soul of a person
Truth – Conformity with fact or reality
Unassuming – modest, not arrogant or presuming