Benedict XVI and the Mustard Seed

On 19 April 2005 I
made it into Piazza San Pietro just as smoke was coming out of the chimney of
the Sistine Chapel.  It was a grey
cloudy day, so it was hard to make out whether the smoke was white or
black.  The bells were supposed to
ring to announce the election of the successor to John Paul II, but nothing
happened, so we were all confused. 
The Piazza began to fill with more and more people, seminarians, sisters
and laypeople running down the Via della Conciliazione as fast as they
could.  The atmosphere was
electric, because we all knew that we were going to participate in something
Rome had been my
home for almost seven years by that point.  I had moved there after graduating from Christendom College
because I wanted to live in the heart of Christendom, close to the Holy
Father.  I also was desperate to
find my place in the Church, to find my vocation. When I entered seminary a
year after my move to the Eternal City, I passed through the portals of the
Roman Major Seminary, the house of formation for the Diocese of Rome.  I was bonded to Rome, to Peter and to
the Church, and began to find my place in the Church and in the world.
Those were the
declining years of John Paul II’s reign. 
I had several opportunities to meet and serve the Pope, and I was always
awed in his presence.  To see him
so sick and suffering, but carrying on as he did, was amazing.  But there was another figure who had
always been close to me: Joseph Ratzinger.  Even as I was always close to John Paul II, it was Ratzinger
who inspired me from an early age. 
I had read Vittorio Messori’s The
Ratzinger Report
when I was in high school, and at college read deeply from
the rich canon of Ratzinger’s theological works.  I knew that to be steeped in Ratzinger’s thought was not always
to make oneself appreciated.
Shortly after I
entered the seminary, Ratzinger’s long awaited The Spirit of the Liturgy came out.  I had devoured all of his other writings on the liturgy, and
longed to see how his teaching on the sacred liturgy and music could be lived
in the heart of the Church.  But
the other seminarians warned me that to identify myself too closely with
Ratzinger was “career suicide.”  All I had ever wanted to be was a parish priest anyway, so I was not
worried about that.  Yet I was a
New Man at the seminary and so I exchanged the Ignatius Press cover of that
seminal work for a 1970s bookcover of the encyclicals of Paul VI.  Needless to say, I fooled no one.  That book sparked endless discussion at
the seminary, in favor and against, and I increasingly began to imbibe the
Ratzingerian view of the world, the Church and theology.  A professor at the Gregorian nicknamed me Ratzinger because I always invoked his name, a moniker of which I was humbled and proud, even if it was meant as a light-hearted jab.
For a seminarian in
Rome in the early years of the Third Millennium, Ratzinger was a formidable
personage.  I heard him speak
several times, and wanted so much to spend hours in a room picking his brain on
so many things.  The only regret
that I take with me from those years in Rome is that I was so struck by his
humility I could never bring myself to crowd around him like the others
did.  But my devotion was
total.  From time to time, I would
serve the early Masses at St Peter’s Basilica, and come across the Prefect for
the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith as he ambled across the Piazza to
go to to work.  And I always
shouted out, Buon giorno, Eminenza! hoping
one day to serve him in some capacity.
After John Paul
II’s death, Ratzinger’s presence, quiet, serene and hopeful, dominated the
Roman scene.  I participated in so
many Masses both for the mourning for the passing of the only Pope I had never
known and the election of the next Peter. 
As the cardinals filed by, there were sounds of enthusiasm from the
faithful.  But whenever Ratzinger
walked by, the sound was deafening. 
If vox populi, vox Dei had any
weight with the porporati at all,
they could not have ignored the visible and audible response of the People of
God to the Bavarian theologian.
He is a theologian
of incomparable stature.  When the
Bishop of Charleston assigned me to study dogmatic theology for my license, it
was not my first choice. I had never thought of it before; I wanted to be a
liturgist.  But in Ratzinger I
uncovered the fact that liturgy, and its reform and restoration, finds its
deepest meaning in the Christ which dogmatic theology encounters in awe and
wonder.  Dogma became the academic
road ecclesiastical obedience laid out for me, and it bound me even more to the
man who would be elected as the Successor to St Peter.
I cannot adequately
describe what I felt to hear the word Joseph as the Dean proclaimed the new
Pope.  I knew it had to be
him.  I knew for weeks it had to be
him.  I count the day of his
election as one of the happiest of my life, because it was so personally
significant to me.  A man who had
inspired me to be a priest, a theologian and a Christian engaged with both the
Tradition and the modern world at the same time now reigned from the Throne of
the Fisherman. 
The Mass of the
Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry and his Enseatment at the Lateran Basilica
were moments of pure joy for me.  I
wanted to call them coronation and enthronement, they were so glorious.  But more impressive than the ceremonies
surrounding these historical events I was privileged to take a part in, was
listening to him teach as Peter. 
Clear, distinct, and poetic all at the same time.  A master class with one of the greatest
professors in human history was being offered to all of humanity, if we would
just listen and learn.
During the Mass at
the Lateran Basilica, I was given the great honor to distribute Holy
Communion.  I was upset, however,
to discover that I was to go all the way outside of the Basilica and down the
Piazza and out into the streets to perform my appointed task.  Selfishly, I balked at the idea of not
being able to participate in the end of a liturgy which meant so much for
me.  But as I looked back at the
grand doors of the Mother and Head of all the Churches of the City and the
World, carrying Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament in my hands, I was
flooded with a sense of completion. 
Formed close to the heart of the Church, I was imbued with spirit of
Eternal Rome, the vision of Pope Benedict XVI and the mission of the
fishermen.  It would not do for me
to tarry around Rome while the man I revered as my greatest Teacher made the
world into his classroom.  Like any
good student, I had to go back into my mission field to hand on what I had
The only Pope I
have ever named in the Canon has been Benedict.  Today, the day on which he announces his resignation, I
offered the Ordinary Form in English and said his name like I have every day of
my priesthood.  I offered that
Mass, on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, and prayed for him, knowing he was
sick, and all the sick on this World Day dedicated to them.  After Mass, I discovered the news by
text message from a friend I had called from the Piazza on Election Day.  Later that day, I offered the
Extraordinary Form in Latin.  I’m
not sure if what I did was rubrically correct, but to the prayers of this day’s
feast I added the prayers for the Pope. 
And I freely admit how hard it was for me to say that name that I have
pronounced every day since my Ordination shortly after his election with such
I am a priest of
the Benedict XVI Generation. 
The way that I
approach theology, liturgy, preaching, pastoral life, everything, has been
profoundly influenced by this amazing man.  I will always thank God for his constant presence in my
life, and in the lives of those I touch because of his example to me.  I have enough sentiment in me to want
to write the Holy Father personally to tell him all this, but I know that he
will never receive it.  But even in
that he continues to teach me.
Few understood the
rich symbolism involved when Benedict XVI visited the grave of the oft
misunderstood Celestine V and placed his pallium upon it in 2009.  Now, in hindsight, it comes across as a
prophetic moment.  As the Sovereign
Pontiff, our sweet Christ on Earth, transitions into a life of prayer and
penance, in a hidden Nazareth within the walls of the Vatican, he shows us that
the Church belongs to Christ.  The
sign of the mustard seed becomes a reality in the 265th successor to
St Peter.
In 1996, in his
famous interview with Peter Seewald, he said, Maybe we
are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the church’s history, where
Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it
will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an
intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world – that let God in.  
It is the hallmark
of a man who practices what he preaches.  Pope Benedict XVI shows us the
way by example of how to live as a Christian in a world increasingly hostile to
the Gospel and the Church: as mustard seeds of faith.  He may not know it until the Final Judgment, but Joseph
Ratzinger has inspired countless young men and women, priests, religious and
laypeople to be just like those mustard seeds.  We are privileged that he has shown us the way.   Viva il Papa!       


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Revd Fr Christopher Smith (26 Posts)

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