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With the passing of 2022, the Catholic Church has also said goodbye to a giant of the faith. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI left us on the eve of the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. How fitting!
I say with sincerity, the death of the late Pope Emeritus feels to me a lot like the parting of a great teacher or grandfather figure, a wise, firm but gentle spiritual influence in my life. I suspect other Catholics feel the same way.
I have little doubt Benedict XVI will eventually be, as many have predicted, considered a doctor of the Church. The late Pontiff was a key instrument of God in my reversion to (or first genuine discovery of) the Catholic faith.
It was in 2007, shortly after I received the Sacrament of Marriage, when I heard a friend speak of the new series of catechesis Benedict XXI had been giving during his Wednesday audiences. The comment I heard was something to the effect of “the Pope has been providing a beautiful catechesis on the continuity of the Church and its dogmas since its founding, by highlighting the lives of some of its most influential historical figures.”
I was immediately curious!
And this is how my authentic formation on the Catholic faith came about.
You see, I never went to a Catholic school. I received my sacraments up until my First Communion. And that was it! Like many cultural Catholics in my native Peru, my family did not follow up on my religious formation. We never prayed. We never went to Church (except for funerals, or to celebrate someone else’s sacraments).
At 29, I had only begun to reconsider the implications of my Catholic faith for the first time with maturity and genuine interest. I had recently gone through the marriage preparation program at the Diocese of Phoenix. It had been a terrific growth experience, but I was ready for more.
When I first did an internet search on the Pope’s “Wednesday audiences” or “Wednesday catechesis,” I was thrilled to discover that each of them was usually delivered live from the Vatican but then published, in most languages, as a text on the Vatican’s website, usually within the same week.
So, I read the last week’s catechesis, and I was immediately hooked!
I had no idea of the incredible ability Benedict XVI had to put the most complex dogmas into clear and digestible words. Not only did he do that well, but he was also a master storyteller (as he used the lives of the Apostles, Fathers of the Church and Catholic Saints to teach the Faith). The Pontiff also had the ability to intertwine each new Wednesday catechesis with the preceding one, and with the following one, as to show every possible connection between the truths of the Catholic faith, and between the Old and the New Testaments.
It felt as if Benedict XVI was using the Wednesday audiences to paint for the faithful this beautiful fresco, which is what the Church looks like when properly seen through the centuries.
I started by going back to the Vatican website, every Wednesday, to read last week’s catechesis. But in just a few weeks, I realized that wasn’t enough! I had just found a treasure. I was learning so much. I wanted more!
I decided to go back to the beginning of his pontificate and read his very first catechesis and then catch up until the present day (summer of 2007). It took me only a few days to do that. I still wanted more!
I thought to myself, if this is what his short-and-concise Wednesday catechesis look like, I can’t imagine how powerful any of his speeches or magisterial documents can be.
So, I went and looked. I wasn’t disappointed.
I began reading every exhortation, every apostolic letter, audience, encyclical, homily, letter, message, motu proprio, prayer, speech… in short, I read everything that has been published in English or Spanish from Pope Benedict XVI on the Vatican’s website from beginning until the end of his pontificate. The experience was transformative!
Someone asked me once where I received my formation. I answered, “from Benedict XVI.”
You must understand, before Benedict XVI, I had ZERO formation! The story I just related was only the beginning of an empirical learning journey I am still on. But it had a clear beginning in the late Pope Emeritus. After I had read everything the Vatican website had from Benedict XVI, I checked out St. John Paul II’s writings. Needless to say, I learned a lot from JPII as well!
Then, I realized the Vatican has the entire Catechism published online as well (Benedict XVI's eloquence is found there too). I read it all, directly from the site. The entire process took a few years, all while my conversion was growing in intensity. I also began to pick up a few books here and there. Each time, I would read from the Vatican website while at the office, every chance I had. It was a long but exhilarating process.
It’s funny to think of it now, because many times while reading Benedict XVI from my office, I felt guilty for not focusing enough on my work (back then I was running a business), spending too much time online. But now, I know it was God’s plan. He was preparing me for my mission.
Today, I can only say I know enough of Catholicism to understand how much I still don’t know. Growing in our understanding of the Faith never ends. But the basics of my faith along with their foundation on Scripture and Tradition, some fundamentals on apologetics, an understanding of apostolic succession, many of the arguments I use now to defend the dignity of the human person, my understanding of who I am, and the purpose of my life, were forged in my mind largely through the brilliant intellect and teaching abilities of Benedict XVI.
Years later, while I embraced Pope Francis with enthusiasm as the new head of the Church, I often missed the genius of Benedict XVI. Early in Francis’s pontificate, I was disheartened every time I heard an unjust comparison between the two. People often highlighted Pope Francis’ humility as if Benedict XVI had not been a humble pope too. I can’t think of something humbler than his last action as head of the Church. There are so many other superficial comparisons still made today that dismiss what a splendid shepherd the late Pope Emeritus was to the Church.
Many still do not appreciate the beautiful legacy Benedict XVI left us, through the clarity of his writings, love for Tradition, uncompromising faithfulness, and commitment to Truth.
I did not need to wait for his passing to appreciate these. I lived through them, intensely, in a very personal manner.
I love and pray for Pope Francis, daily. But I have missed Benedict XVI ever since the Vatican published his last Wednesday catechesis. Even so, I also rejoice in knowing (in my heart) that a new powerful advocate has entered the numbers of the Church Triumphant.
From a grateful student... Thank you for everything, Benedict XVI!
Please intercede for the Church and for the whole world.
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