Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 | 2:01 a.m.
For the first 18 years of my life, the only pope I knew was Paul VI. Of course I use the word “knew” in the figurative sense, since I’d never met the former Giovanni Battista Maria Montini during my childhood and youth.
I remember reflexively praying for him at Mass when the priest would get to the part about God’s “Servant Pope Paul” and his “Bishop John,” referring to Philadelphia’s Cardinal Kroll.
To this day, whenever we reach that part in the liturgy, my inner voice still intones the names of those two good men, even though other popes and bishops have replaced them several times over. It’s like this, you see: The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church are not just names in books and still photos on newscasts. They become a part of you if you grew up in the spiritual family.
Paul’s successor, John Paul I, never had the opportunity to impress himself on my consciousness since he died only one month into his papacy. The poor man will always be remembered, for me at least, as a slightly sad-looking, generally benevolent but entirely forgettable footnote to my Catholic history.
And then came the “Rock of Peter” star, the man who changed the way we all looked at the Vatican: John Paul II. The first non-Italian in over half a millennium, Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, revolutionized both the office and its perception by Catholics and non-Catholics. This was a man who was much more a warrior for the faith than its caretaker, a man who had dealt with the Great Satan in communist form and also had to study for the priesthood, in secret, under Nazi overlords.
He taught my generation of young people, and the ones who followed, that moral relativism is just another word for cowardice, and tolerance for everything is appreciation for nothing.
In my senior yearbook from Merion Mercy, nestled among the student portraits are photos of Paul VI and John Paul I, since they had both died during that final year and the nuns wanted to make sure we’d remember them. No one had to include the photo of John Paul the Great in any book for him to be remembered, since his life was a monument so tall and so massive that it dwarfs the horizon of our Catholic experience.
That’s why I felt a strange sense of sympathy for Joseph Ratzinger when he was elevated to the papacy and became Pope Benedict XVI. This man who was called “God’s Rottweiler” because of his iron grip on the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the disciplinary arm of the church, had a difficult job to fulfill. Behind him was a fisherman whose shoes he could never fill, before him a road of controversy and criticism, especially from we in the democratic West who were angered at the exploding sex abuse scandal, the refusal to ordain women as priests, and the disaffection of so many Catholics.
Benedict had neither the charisma nor the stamina of his predecessor, and there were even those who stooped so low as to point out the difference between the anti-communist battles of John Paul II and the fact that, as a boy, the young pope once belonged to the Hitler Youth.
Benedict met his critics with grace, something that those who had observed him during his decades at the Vatican never suspected. For the longest time, the “Rottweiler” had been viewed as a severe man who imposed draconian punishments on those who diverged from official church teachings. It didn’t help that he wasn’t the athletic, engaging Renaissance Man he served for almost 30 years and who was truly beloved by his people.
And yet, Benedict did something that John Paul never did: He apologized for the horrible crimes committed against the most innocent among us, the children. In 2010, he wrote a letter to the victims of abuse at the hands of the Irish Catholic church and called what had happened “sinful and criminal acts” and criticized the bishops for “grave errors in judgment and failures of leadership.” It wasn’t enough for a lot of people, especially here in the United States, where we expect public executions in the town square.
But it was much more than any other pontiff had ever done.
Benedict was a man who understood human frailty far better than most because he dealt with it for so many years as the leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. He also saw how humans can be twisted into evil facsimiles of themselves by surviving the Nazi scourge. And he understood, in the final years of a life devoted to Christ, that we need to ask forgiveness before we can be forgiven.
I do not have the same sad feeling of loss as I did when John Paul II passed away. But I am only now beginning to realize the caliber of the man who was a good caretaker of what we in the Catholic family hold sacred. God bless and keep him.
Christine Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.