Remembering Benedict: Seminary leaders reflect on late pope’s interactions, impact

pope benedict with crowd
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI passed away Dec. 31. His funeral is Thursday, Jan. 5.

Msgr. Martin Schlag met  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger while both were waiting in line for the bathroom.

“I hear these small footsteps, and I turned around and it’s Cardinal Ratzinger,” said Schlag, a professor at The Saint Paul Seminary. “I said, ‘your eminence, please go ahead.’ He was very, very kind and gentle and thanked me for letting him use the toilet first.”

A trivial, human moment, to be sure. But it exemplifies the nature of a humble, shy, understated man who would go on to become Pope Benedict XVI and lead the Catholic Church for eight years before his resignation in 2013 and death on New Year’s Eve.

The fact Schlag was in Rome helping translate at a meeting between Ratzinger, Pope John Paul II and German bishops regarding abortion and crisis pregnancy centers highlights how Benedict staunchly upheld Church teachings while maintaining a relatively peaceful, calm demeanor.

“The question of God was Benedict’s central question,” Schlag said. “How can we find God? How can we know God? And he always was very attentive to contemporary culture; he spoke in a way that people could understand. He’s basically what we’d call a fundamental theologian — who was able to explain the faith so well.”

Fr. Pietro Rossotti, who also serves as a seminary professor, knows this firsthand. Rossotti edited the book “Called to Holiness: On Love, Vocation and Formation,” a collection of addresses, speeches, and homilies by Benedict to seminarians and consecrated men and women.

Rossotti also teaches a course on Pope Benedict XVI at The Saint Paul Seminary.

“One of the main points of his teaching is this: faith, hope and charity are really the only way to propose Christianity to the modern man,” Rossotti said. “He spoke so beautifully about these theological virtues in a way that is a fulfillment of the natural desire in the heart of every man to seek and to find God.”

While in seminary, Rossotti and a group of fellow members approaching ordination for the Priestly Fraternity of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo met Pope Emeritus Benedict during a 2015 private audience. Benedict also sent him a personal thank-you note after Rossotti sent the pope a copy of “Called to Holiness.”

“I treasure that exchange very much,” said Rossotti, who was also in St. Peter’s Square when Benedict was announced as pope in 2005. He’ll be there again Thursday for “Pape Bene’s” funeral.

Schlag has a personal note from Benedict, too; when the Austrian priest sent Benedict a publication he’d produced on the pope’s concepts regarding natural law, Schlag received in return a book with a dedication from Benedict.

Schlag is also friends with Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s longtime confidant and personal secretary. Schlag said Gänswein told him the retired pope was “lucid right up to the end,” editing collected works of his, answering letters and concelebrating Mass when his health allowed.

Dr. Christopher Thompson, academic dean at The Saint Paul Seminary, interacted with Pope Benedict XVI on several occasions — most intimately at a 2011 private audience. Thompson and about 100 fellow theologians were in Rome to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Mater et Magistra, an encyclical by Pope John XXIII on the topic of Christianity and social progress.

“He was his typical self — extremely humble and generous with his time; he had a certain depth that was hard to overestimate,” Thompson said. “In his writings as a theologian, Benedict expressed a … certain ease with the tradition that comes only through years of prayerful meditation and study. It’s clear the man was an extraordinary intellectual, and I think it’s going to be a long time before we see another like him.”

Seminary instructor and Catechetical Institute founder Jeff Cavins agrees.

Cavins met Ratzinger in 2005 shortly before he became pope, and told the Catholic Spirit Benedict was blessed with humility as well as profound theological and scriptural insights.

“Of course, there’s sadness because you see someone that was a father for you that is gone,” Rossotti said. “First there is sadness, and then of course immense gratitude for the gift that he was for the Church and for this time.”

“While the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI certainly comes with a share of sadness, the Saint Paul Seminary community views this time as an opportunity to celebrate the work of a shepherd whose impact on our Church and our world will be felt for generations,” said Fr. Joseph Taphorn, seminary rector. “We thank our Heavenly Father for a Holy Father who staunchly upheld and articulated the teachings of the Catholic faith, empowering scores of priests, deacons and lay leaders to proclaim the Good News throughout the world. We are particularly indebted to Pope Benedict for his influence on seminary formation and emphasis on nurturing joyful, holy, healthy priests.

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