TORONTO – Today’s Media and Press cannot resist succumbing to the temptation of finding fault with any and all things Catholic, even as the Vatican prepares to bid its last adieu to one of Catholicism’ leaders. Backhanded compliments abound. I will not speak ill of the deceased, especially in the case of the former Pope Emeritus.
I knew Pope Benedict XVI only by reputation, that is, only by the reputation attributed to his views and leadership by commentators who had the means and desire to impart their passing impressions on the rest of us.
But I did see him in person…once. It was on a cold and overcast day, April 8, 2005, uncommon weather in Springtime for Rome. Along with Prime Minister Paul Martin, eleven MPs (including Cabinet Ministers), one Senator and the Grand Chief of First Nations (Phil Fontaine), I was among the privileged one million plus attendees outside the entrance of Saint Peter’s Basilica for the funeral of the recently deceased [Saint] Pope John Paul II.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was the Celebrant. We waited in St. Peter’s Square from 7:00 AM until the soon to be Pope Benedict XVI began the funeral at 11:00 AM. The Mass lasted a full two hours. As members of an official “State delegation”, my colleagues and I were afforded the luxury of folding chairs to relax any discomfort over the six-hour open-air event.
Five million and more other attendees spread over the piazzas of Rome had only their faith and their respect for the Pope to give them strength. An estimated two million Catholics had made the trek from Poland to pay their last respects to their hero.
No wonder, from my perspective, Pope John Paul II was the key political dynamic in the dissipation of the Cold War tensions that threatened world peace following WWII, and the integration of new political dynamics following the break-up of the USSR. That dissertation is for another day.
The inheritor of that narrative was Pope Benedict XVI, the first German pontiff in one thousand years. Irrespective of his personal social views (it is important for any leader to have them), his election as Pontiff will always be associated with the philosophical and moral rectitude associated with the concept and the act of Reconciliation everywhere.
For Canadians, it is especially significant that he invited leaders of our Aboriginal communities to Rome (including Phil Fontaine) to embark on the ways and means to mitigate and resolve the negative impacts of Residential schools.
During his papal mandate, the Church also recognized and named her first Aboriginal Saint, the Lily of the Mohawks – Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.
But he was above all, a humble and compassionate man who recognized his limitations and who admitted when he could bear no more. The papacy was and continues to be more important than any one individual. He was humble enough to say: “This has been more than enough for me; Lord let this cup pass from my hands”.
He resigned and stepped aside. Tomorrow the Universal Church and the World say goodbye and RIP to Joseph Ratzinger the man and Benedict XVI the Pope.