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Catholics who loved Benedict share how he has shaped their lives

A man prays as people pay their respects at the body of Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Jan. 4, 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

(OSV News) — “Jesus, ich liebe dich,” “Jesus, ich liebe dich,” “Jesus, ich liebe dich.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s reported last words comprise the refrain of a simple hymn composed the night of his death. “Lord, I love you,” were spoken in Italian, according to Vatican News, but Minnesota composer Jacob Flaherty used Pope Benedict’s native German in a choral piece he composed late in the night Dec. 31.

The hymn began to take shape as a few piano riffs in the key of F-sharp major, and, after an 11 p.m. Mass at Holy Family in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, where Flaherty is the sacred music director, he united it to the words of a pope he’s long admired. Arranged in four parts, the piece echoes both Taizé chant and “traditional reverence,” he said.

“Here’s this 20th-century lion of theology, and it all comes to a culmination with the most childlike simplicity: ‘Jesus, I love you.’ It’s so inspiring to hear that,” said Flaherty, 40, of Pope Benedict.

He worked on the piece until 2:30 a.m., then brought copies of his handwritten composition to two choirs the following day at Jan. 1 Masses for the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. It was expected to be sung again at a memorial Mass for Pope Benedict at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. The verses, which speak about love, are in Latin and English, and drawn from 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4.

With his final words, Pope Benedict “just summarized that the whole work of theology is a relationship of love with its author, Jesus Christ, and to go into death and likely eternal life with that sentiment on your lips was so inspiring to me,” Flaherty said. “It made me think of his encyclical on hope. … There was nothing theoretical about it. It was a lived-out and firmly believed-in reality.”

Through his prolific writing, public addresses and humble demeanor, Pope Benedict made a lasting impression on many Catholics both before, during and after his papacy. In the days following Pope Benedict’s death, Catholic admirers posted public tributes on social media, shared photos with him from public and private papal audiences, and retweeted favorite quotes.

Others reflected more quietly on what his life and work meant to them. When Ryan Ayala, 33, heard Pope Benedict had died, it was 4 a.m. at his home in Arizona, but he felt compelled to wake up to journal his impressions of a man who he said was able to “maintain a balance” in the seeming tensions between “the timeless traditions of the church and an evolving world.”

As a senior at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, Indiana, in 2011, Ayala was inspired to “muscle his way through” Pope Benedict’s “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” written in 2000, prior to his papacy. It gave him confidence to read more theology, including more of Pope Benedict’s writings, which he said have profoundly shaped his life.

“It all comes down to the faith is an encounter with the living God,” said Ayala, director of marriage and family for a Scottsdale parish. “It’s not just an assent to some sort of philosophical truths or even theological truths, but it’s an encounter with the living God who is Jesus Christ. That being central to his theology has really meant everything. It’s given me life, it’s given me happiness, and it’s really allowed me to understand that this person, this God, is not an abstract principle, but he’s a father who’s mercifully, lovingly invested in my life and my well-being.”

As a student studying in Rome from 1999 into the Great Jubilee year in 2000, Jenny Kraska attended a weekly Mass at the German College in the Vatican. It was always a small Mass, no more than 25 attendees, she said. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the usual presider, and he often visited afterward with attendees in the courtyard. He remembered the students’ names and would ask about their studies and what they were reading, she said.

“I was struck by how soft-spoken he was,” said Kraska, 43, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. “He also had this wonderful sense of humor.”

Kraska said after encountering him personally, she saw him again years later in a professional capacity. In 2008, she was among Catholic conference directors invited to hear Pope Benedict speak on the White House Lawn in Washington during his U.S. papal visit. She said she often quotes from his writings on religious freedom and the importance of participating in public life.

Auxiliary Bishop Adam J. Parker of Baltimore happened to be in the room Feb. 11, 2013, when Pope Benedict announced to a small group of cardinals his plans to resign. At the time, then-Msgr. Parker was living in Rome as the priest secretary to Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, a former Baltimore archbishop who had been appointed Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. Bishop Parker vividly recalls the surprise announcement, as well as the conclave and resignation day that followed. He said he spent time Dec. 31 scrolling through his photos from those weeks, reflecting on his experience of the historic events.

“In the sense that Pope John Paul II taught us so much about suffering and doing so with dignity, Pope Benedict taught us a great lesson in humility and in the self-awareness that is required of leadership,” said Bishop Parker, 50.

Although Father Harrison Ayre never met Pope Benedict in person, the retired pope has been a constant companion in the priest’s academic work and priesthood. The priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia, and co-host of podcast “Clerically Speaking,” is a doctoral candidate at Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, United Kingdom, writing his dissertation on Pope Benedict’s theology. He’s read everything the pope had written that’s been translated into English, and now the priest is making his way through the pope’s untranslated German scholarship.

“There’s a ton to unpack, and every time it’s like an explosion in the brain of new material,” said Father Ayre, 39.

Pope Benedict has influenced his priesthood “in every way possible,” he said. “He’s really influenced me on the kind of Marian character of the church. … He has this homily where he talks about Mary as the holy soil for the seed of the Word, but that seed needs time to take in the soil and to grow and to mature, and that’s what the church is meant to be. And so we need to actually almost slow down at times, become more contemplative, less activistic, less worried about numbers or whatever, and let the Holy Spirit do his work.”

Antonina Zielinska Schlenker only saw Pope Benedict from afar at World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011, but she treasures the copy of the YOUCAT given to pilgrims from their Holy Father. Her copy of the youth-focused catechism is now shabby from heavy use, she said.

“When I read the beginning letter I just couldn’t stop crying, it was just so beautiful,” said Zielinska Schlenker, 34, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. “It was basically saying, ‘This is all the information, we can help you get it, but you have to think for yourself, you have to question and reason and grow. And feed yourself. You’re responsible for your own journey, basically.'”

She said her positive impression of Pope Benedict confirmed during World Youth Day led her to read more of his papal writings. While a scholar, he never “talks down to” his readers, she said.

Reading Benedict has affected the way she speaks about the faith, she said.

“He just gave me more of the tools to say what I knew, but didn’t really understand enough to speak about, and basically gave me more courage to speak out and understand what I was saying and not be fearful,” she said.

Benedict’s election may have also inspired spikes in the name’s popularity, especially in 2005, the year he was elected, when “Benedict” jumped from the 5,005th most-used name in the United States in 2004 to No. 2,391, a popularity level not seen since 1968, according to Social Security Administration data compiled by The Bump, a baby-focused website.

In Atchison, Kansas, Olivia Kemnitz and her husband, Matt, were considering the name Benedict for their first-born son early in 2005, but Pope Benedict’s election and name choice confirmed their choice. Their now 17-year-old Benedict was born that September, and is the oldest of nine. Olivia sees him as a quiet leader, like his papal namesake.

Pope Benedict was not the “outgoing, sanguine leader” that Pope St. John Paul II was, said Kemnitz, 42, but he offered “a different type of leadership, which is also powerful,” making him worthy of emulation.

Also in Atchison, Matthew and Jen Ramage named two of their sons — Joseph, 11, and Peter Benedict, 2 — for the pope, whom Matthew described as a spiritual grandfather. In 2012, when Joseph was a toddler, the Ramages attended a Wednesday audience in the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall, and held a sign with Joseph reading, “My name is Joseph, too.” Their son was momentarily featured on the large live-feed screens “like at a baseball game,” recalled Matthew Ramage, 40.

“The pope would have seen his face for a brief second, at least,” he said.

Pope Benedict has also long been an academic focus for Ramage, who teaches theology at Benedictine College. However, the pope’s death has brought him more joy than grief, he said.

“I’m happy for him. He’s lived to a ripe old age, and now he can arrive at that goal he’s been desiring for so long: to meet the Lord,” he said. “It’s been cause for thankfulness that he’s reached the end of his life and is with the Lord and can intercede for us now.”

Maria Wiering is senior writer for OSV News.

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