Benedict XVI: Compassion without compromise
Benedict's legacy feels as relevant as ever. In his spiritual testament, he said “Stand firm in the Faith! Do not be confused!” His was a clear, steady voice in a confusing and complex world. In times of darkness or trial it has always been gentle, quiet, assured voices that have kept me from breaking; his has been one of them. Compassion, even the type that strikes us like lightning, doesn’t need to compromise truth or reason, and Pope Benedict XVI showed us how. The post Benedict XVI: Compassion without compromise appeared first on Catholic Herald.
It was Thursday 18 August, 2005, and we were on the banks of the Rhine in Cologne. Hand in hand, my friend and I had run, squealing, back and forth through crowds trying to get as close to the water’s edge as we could. Our excitement was childish, but sincere and heartfelt. He was coming! Pope Benedict XVI was coming to greet us, and though fresh in our memory was the death of our beloved John Paul II, we couldn’t wait to greet his successor with all the love and joy that a crowd of tens of thousands of Young People attending World Youth Day could muster.
The fleet of boats was approaching “where will they stop?” Were we close enough to get a glimpse? “Which boat is he on?” “Can you see him?” Then, at last: “Dear Young People” came through the speakers in that soft, elderly, tone. Like a loving grandfather Benedict XVI addressed us, the Young Church, for the first time. In that first address we were given a foretaste of his pontificate: one of humility, warmth and universality; one that invited a passionate journey towards the person of Jesus; one that invited us to reach for reason and intellect; one that asked us to position our hearts firmly and fully with Christ; one that pointed to the Saints for guidance; one that left nothing ambiguous.
In the years that followed – which saw the publication of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, and then the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth – I observed with frustration the conflict between the lazy portrayal of Benedict XVI by much of the media as a harsh backward-looking “head-and-no-heart” conservative, and the gentle, wise and passionate scholar, servant and leader whom I had first encountered in Cologne and met again in his written and spoken words.
In Jesus of Nazareth Benedict drew my attention to the “visceral” nature of the Good Samaritan’s compassion; that he is “struck by the lightning flash of mercy”. To understand the relevance of Christ’s message in the Good Samaritan parable “I must become like someone in love”, Benedict told me, “someone whose heart is open to being shaken up by another’s need. Then I find my neighbour; or better – then I am found by him.” A cold-hearted man this was not.
Between 2008 and 2010 I did become someone in love, and on Saturday 18 September 2010 I found myself again hand in hand with someone – this time my fiancé – making my way through crowds to see Benedict XVI. We were by then in the United Kingdom, where Pope Benedict had come to beatify another great man: England’s very own John Henry Newman. My fiancé was a convert from Anglicanism and a former university organ scholar; he had been received into the Church at the London Oratory in June 2009.
Benedict’s writings on liturgy and music had appealed to him and by the time we were walking to Hyde Park on 18 September for Papal Benediction, we had already arranged for the insides of our wedding bands to be inscribed with Newman’s motto, Cor Ad Cor Loquitur. This may read as sickly sweet, but to us, Catholic twenty-somethings living and working in London, it was romance at its height,
After Mass on New Year’s Day a fellow parishioner recalled with emotion the breath-taking moment at that service in Hyde Park when there was complete and utter silence as Benedict led tens of thousands of us, keeling in silent adoration of Christ in the Eucharist. I remember that moment too, and glancing over at my flatmate who was also visibly moved. That was the same flatmate who had had a vision of creating a banner for Pope Benedict’s visit so large that the “cameras couldn’t miss it”.
We, our friends and parishioners did make a banner, a 6-metre-long banner, and the cameras did not miss it. Cardinal Nichols did not miss it. And neither did Pope Benedict XVI when he passed us in his Popemobile on Lambeth Bridge. We then walked with the banner, singing the Salve Regina at the tops of our voices, all the way to Westminster Abbey. Our timing was providential: “Upon this Rock I will build My Church” – as the banner pointed out – provided the backdrop for photographs published across the world the Pope arrived at and entered the place where the Supreme Governor of the Church of England is crowned.
In 2023, with a husband and 4 children later, Benedict’s legacy feels as relevant as ever. In his spiritual testament, he said “Stand firm in the Faith! Do not be confused!” His was a clear, steady voice in a confusing and complex world. In times of darkness or trial it has always been gentle, quiet, assured voices that have kept me from breaking; his has been one of them. Compassion, even the type that strikes us like lightning, doesn’t need to compromise truth or reason, and Pope Benedict XVI showed us how.
Photo: LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images
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