Fittingly, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI celebrated his 90th birthday on Easter Sunday. This milestone offers a chance for us to reflect on the gift that his life has been to the Church and world and to offer gifts of our own.
What has marked the life, ministry and pontificate of this pastor who was born Joseph Alois Ratzinger on Holy Saturday, April 16, 1927, in addition to his intellectual brilliance, is his great humility and love of the Church. This was apparent from the start of his papacy when, in his first address to the world after being elected, he referred to himself as “a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord” and then said, “The fact that the Lord knows how to work and to act even with inadequate instruments comforts me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers.” This same self-effacing modesty characterized his entire pontificate and was on display at the end when he said, “I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth,” following that historic announcement in 2013 that he would step aside as Chief Shepherd and retire to a life of prayer.
That pilgrimage has entailed a remarkable, grace-filled journey from his birth in a faith-filled family, to his 1951 ordination to the priesthood, to his work as a university professor, to becoming archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, to his Petrine ministry. Before Joseph Ratzinger became pope in 2005, he was respected as one of the great theological minds of the Church, serving as an advisor to the Second Vatican Council and for years working at the side of Saint Pope John Paul II as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His legacy throughout has been his engagement of faith with the modern world. Notably, he announced a Year of Faith and summoned us to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, and to re-propose his Gospel in the New Evangelization.
The Holy Father revealed his foremost message at his inaugural Mass: “Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is.” In his homilies, addresses and writings, including his encyclicals Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope) and Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), he taught with a pastoral heart. Central to it all was the recognition that, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, [Jesus Christ], which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, 2).
The arc of Pope Benedict’s pilgrimage of faith has been a journey to “Christ our Hope,” the theme of his April 2008 visit to the United States. The climax of his visit here to the Church of Washington was the Mass at Nationals Park, where he said, “Those who have hope must live different lives! By your prayers, by the witness of your faith, by the fruitfulness of your charity, may you point the way towards that vast horizon of hope which God is even now opening up to his Church, and indeed to all humanity: the vision of a world reconciled and renewed in Christ Jesus, our Savior.”
Another highlight of this visit was celebrating Pope Benedict’s 81st birthday, with children from the nearby Annunciation School singing to him. For his 90th birthday, as we pray that God continue to bless him and his successor Pope Francis, the greatest gift we could offer Pope Emeritus Benedict would be to join him on the pilgrimage to Jesus that has been the goal of his life.
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