Meeting the man who became Pope Benedict

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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the keynote speaker at a Vatican conference on the traditional Latin Mass in October 1998, seven years before he would become Pope Benedict XVI — whose funeral Pope Francis will lead in St. Peter’s Square Thursday.

Two friends and I, media and congressional staff in our mid-20s, saved up money and vacation time to fly to Rome for the event, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the then-limited permissions Pope John Paul II gave to offer the old Latin Mass if the local bishop allowed it.

We arrived about an hour after Ratzinger’s speech, having been introduced to how incredibly unfamiliar it was to travel to Europe before the age of electronic tools. We were devastated at our poor planning, missing the man we came to see. So we embarked on a walk through the streets of Rome, taking it all in.

As we wandered aimlessly, having no clue as to which Via we strolled, we passed a cleric who looked strikingly similar to the man of the day. “No way,” my friends said when I asked them if that was him. Why would Cardinal Ratzinger be by himself on this street?

I was not about to let it go and ran back to the white-haired man dressed as a priest, simply stating aloud his name with a question mark. “Yes?” He could not have been more gracious. My friends and I explained we came from the United States to Rome to participate in the Latin Mass celebrations, and we missed his talk.

People praying as the body of Pope Benedict XVI lies in state in St. Peter's Basilica at The Vatican on January 3, 2023.
People praying as the body of Pope Benedict XVI lies in state in St. Peter’s Basilica at The Vatican on January 3, 2023.
AP Photo/Antonio Calanni

He was amazingly gentle, the opposite of the caricatures of Ratzinger as a Rottweiler. In perfect English he talked with us, interested in the fact that three young guys came all the way to Rome for a Latin Mass conference.

At the end of our conversation, he asked if we would like his blessing — easy to answer. We knelt on the sidewalk and absorbed a beautiful prayer in Latin for our spiritual health and well-being. Then we said goodbye, still in awe as to what just happened.

We had no camera nor even a pen among us, which I regret. The memory of meeting the future Pope Benedict was captured nowhere but our minds — unthinkable today. But it was a special time for those of us attached to the traditional Latin Mass and sacraments.

Fast forward to Benedict becoming pope in 2005 and issuing a document in 2007 that liberalized the use of the traditional Latin Mass and sacraments as they existed before the Second Vatican Council. It changed the liturgical universe, with young priests and laymen enthusiastically embracing the form of the Mass known by Catholics since the time of Pope Saint Gregory the Great until 1969. No groveling to dismissive bishops was necessary; tradition became the default.

This was the Benedict generation, ironically — young Catholics finding new spiritual nourishment with the older books of worship.

Unfortunately, the current pope is not a fan of traditional Catholicism or those who prefer tradition. In recent months, severe restrictions have been enacted as a result of a decree by Pope Francis to uproot the Latin Mass permissions put in place by Pope Benedict.

This week, Pope Benedict’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, told Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost’s chief editor Guido Horst that Francis’ decision to reverse his predecessor’s permissions “broke Pope Benedict’s heart to read.” Benedict’s intention, he said, “had been to help those who simply found a home in the Old Mass to find inner peace, to find liturgical peace.”

According to his longtime secretary, Pope Francis' deciscion to reverse Benedict's permissions on Latin mass "broke his heart."
According to his longtime secretary, Pope Francis’ deciscion to reverse Benedict’s permissions on Latin mass “broke his heart.”
Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Time will tell if Pope Benedict’s Dec. 31 death will open the floodgates for Pope Francis to overturn numerous other traditional customs, beliefs and tenets of the faith or if he finally realizes Catholics who actually attend Mass aren’t big fans of Francis-style revolution.

Then again, all this may be moot with an 86-year-old pope in a wheelchair. The only sure bet for the future is: For dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.

Kenneth J. Wolfe is a contributor to the traditional Catholic blog Rorate Caeli.

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