Popes used to be able to dominate the headlines, but the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI does not seem to carry the same weight as it deserves. Yes, he was in a very unique and unfamiliar position by virtue of his “emeritus” status. Yes, again, his advanced age and frailty made his death not unexpected. Whatever the mitigating circumstances, we lost a profound icon of the Faith, a man who was a greater communicator than he receives credit for.
On the Saturday morning when my Catholic news sources were erupting with the news of his passing, mainstream media coverage was tepid at best. Pope Benedict’s death was wedged in between the former president’s tax returns, the crisis at the border, and the death of television personality Barbara Walters.
Quite the departure from previous big papal news through which I have lived. My first television memory of a papal function was that of Pope Paul VI when he visited New York. It was the first time a pope had ever visited the “New” World, and it was a big deal in our house. On the Sunday Pope Paul celebrated Mass in New York, we here in the San Fernando Valley who had fathers of a certain ecclesiastical bent were forced to sit on the living room floor (the adults laid claim to all available furniture) and watch it on our black and white television set.
My then 7-year-old self was not interested in televised Masses, even if it was the pope. None of the splendor of the liturgy came through our old screen, which tended to lose control of its horizontal hold function. For all of you born from the 1960s on, look up what a horizontal hold was on a TV screen.
I do remember the commentary, and how much it irritated my pop. He wanted to revel in the Holy Father, being on American soil, saying the Mass. I wanted to be outside playing. I recall nothing of what the commentators said, but I remember how much their intrusion on the proceedings irritated my pop.
The next time the papacy grabbed the attention of American media was the 1-2-3 punch of the death of Pope Paul, the election and untimely death of Pope John Paul I, and the election of St. Pope John Paul II in rapid succession. We Catholics “owned” the news cycle then and for years to come.
Pope John Paul was the first non-Italian to be elected since the War of the Roses, and his Polish heritage put him right in the middle of the climax of the Cold War. The media could not get enough.
It has been said Pope Benedict did not seek the papacy. Any man who would actively seek such an office is, in my humble opinion, automatically disqualified. But the office came to him nevertheless. What a burden it must have seemed to him. How would you like to follow the guy who has the suffix “The Great” after his name and then later the prefix “Saint”?
During the course of his papacy, the only shadow Pope Benedict showed any signs of wanting to be enveloped by was that of Jesus. He was the ultimate “hedgehog”: keeping his head down in prayer and thought and leading the Church by example and his tremendous writing skills. After the media was finished denigrating him and casting suspicion on him due to his German heritage, they moved on to other things. Thankfully for the rest of us, the Holy Spirit does not take Nielson ratings into account when deciding who the pontiff should be at any particular time in Church history.
As deep an intellectual he was, Pope Benedict’s writing was as moving and concise for a worldwide audience. His series of books on Jesus belong on every serious Catholic’s bookshelf. And as strict and unmoving as the popular media of his day presented him, his writing and carriage was that of a man with deep compassion and humility.
Debate about the form Pope Benedict’s funeral took pales in comparison to the profundity of his reported last words: “Lord, I love you.” Four words coming from the mouth of this man speaks volumes.
He died a humble servant, a great example for us all and a man who took the gifts God blessed him with and did the most with them. God willing, may we all be able to have the same thing said about us when our time is due.
“Requiescat in pace.”