God willing, if I grow old, I can be one of those people who can say something like, “I’ve lived through 15 presidents, five queens of England, seven popes, etc.” But for I can say only that three popes have reigned during my lifetime. But each has profoundly affected my life as a Christian.
Pope St. John Paul II has affected me most. While I could list numerous reasons, the theme of “identity” sticks out most. I am most fond of these words of JPII: “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.” JPII’s teachings and life have drawn me deeply into the mercy of God that exists in the heart of the Father. Only in relationship to the Father can we truly understand who God desires us each to be.
Pope Francis has also affected me. His attention for those on the “peripheries” is beautiful. Pope Francis draws not only our gaze toward our brothers and sisters who live in distress, both spiritual and material, but he calls us to serve them as living images of Jesus Christ.
As so many others have been doing, the death of Pope Benedict XVI has made me stop and ask: how has Pope Benedict impacted my life?
As with JPII, Pope Benedict has had tremendous influence on my intellectual and spiritual formation. Yet, it is easy to identify how he has affected me most. This impact can also be captured through a quote: “One doesn’t begin to be a Christian because of an ethical decision or a great idea, but rather because of an encounter with an event, with a Person, who gives new horizons to life, and with that, a decisive orientation.”
Of my three popes, Pope Benedict has taught me most about the fundamental fact of reality: that Christ is at the center of it all! By encountering Christ, who meets us “on the road” as He did with the disciples traveling to Emmaus, our lives are utterly transformed. Christ opens up a new way of life before us, a way of friendship with Jesus that draws us to more perfectly imitate Him.
This lesson was made clear to me in my “younger” days, when I was involved in youth ministry. It dawned on me that a life of morality, while necessary, is not primary—or first—in the life of a Christian. But this is what the world gets so wrong about Catholicism. The critics of Catholicism reduce the faith to a bunch of arbitrary rules to be followed, some promulgated by a guy 2,000 years ago and the rest promulgated by a bunch of old celibates at the Vatican. But living as if Catholicism is only a bunch of rules to follow is unfulfilling.
What do I mean?
As a kid, I dreaded taking out the garbage for my parents. It was, as we call it, a chore. When I got into my mid-20s and would visit my parents, from time to time I would notice a full trash can. My immediate reaction was to empty it. This was not something I dreaded, nor did it feel like a chore.
So what changed?
During those years, I recognized how much my parents loved me. As a child, I had no real understanding or value for the love my parents showed me. Every one of their commands was a burden. But with the grace of age and understanding, I began to see the love they bestowed upon me. No longer were my parents’ commands and desires a burden. The chores that once required threats of no video games or loss of car keys became things I gladly took the initiative to do myself. All of this because I encountered and knew the love of a Father and Mother, and this love prompted me to action.
The same is true for us in our walk with Christ. The more we experience the eternal love that springs from His Pierced Heart, the more we can see that His “yoke is easy and burden is light.” Those actions which the world can see only as unreasonable moral demands are transformed in the heart of the Christian into the only thing they can be: an appropriate response of our love for the love that has been shown to us on Calvary.
For this, I am deeply indebted to Pope Benedict. This gentle German showed me the endless depths of a life lived in the heart of Jesus Christ. May he rest in the peace of this same heart!