Pope Benedict XVI: A Personal Testimony
Br Bede reflects on the influence of Pope Benedict XVI on his own spiritual journey.
As a spiritually inquisitive 15-year-old, I took myself to the local library one summer to find a book about Buddhism. I knew I was a Catholic; I went to a Catholic school and, with my Dad, went to Mass most Sundays. But I hadn’t so far found in Catholicism any real energy or conviction. I couldn’t abide the loud and emotional style of the Diocesan Youth Service. Scripture, I realise with hindsight, had sunk in as scattered phrases and stories, but had never assumed a definite meaning that made a difference; I had not the ear to hear, or the Word had not been broken open for me, to bare its flesh. So I thought I would look elsewhere.
What I found in the library that day was not a book about Buddhism, but the first volume of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth series. This was, as Benedict himself put it, the fruit of his own search for the face of God. I think I only read about half of the book that summer, but what I read opened up disproportionately vast vistas. First of all, there was the great mystical tradition betokened by that saying – seeking the face of God. Benedict connects this tradition with the unique experience of Moses in the Old Testament, who is said to have spoken with God face to face. Suddenly, the Bible was revealed to me as the record of a great and ancient spiritual search, one that vaguely but powerfully resonated with my own indistinct, inchoate desire to find something more.
The other abiding memory of that first reading was the chapter on Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. In fact, this chapter offered me a synopsis of why Christianity matters: for Benedict illuminates the meaning of Jesus’ baptism by connecting it with the mystery of his death and Resurrection, the central mystery of Christian faith, and with our own baptism, which inserts each of us into that mystery. I began to get a glimpse why Catholics do what Catholics do – it was all a way of being involved with the life and death of Jesus.
In the autumn after that summer, Pope Benedict made his state visit to the United Kingdom. I was among the crowds that went to see him. I was surprised that he was so diminutive, so soft-spoken. I don’t remember what he said. It was enough to see in the flesh and even be surprised by the man whose words had so impressed me. His very demeanour was a lesson: I would call it an attentive meekness of spirit – attentive to the Lord, meek in waiting on his Word.
St Paul says that ‘faith comes by hearing’: we each of us need preachers and pastors to speak the Word of God to us, or to help us really hear it. And it is only natural to be grateful to those who minister the Word of God in our lives: it is right to love and give thanks for those who do the planting and the watering, even if they are dispensable, even if it is God who gives the growth; they are His instruments.
My experience of Catholicism and my growing understanding of the Faith were soon being enriched by a great many other people and sources. Nevertheless, for me as for many others, Pope Benedict’s writings and example have held out what has felt at times a very personal hand, helping me along the way of the Lord. May he now find his reward, and behold at last the face of his God.