Destination: the Vatican.
In 2006, a group of 21 local teenagers, their chaperones, and Father Mark Gurtner, then Pastor of Our Lady of Good Hope Church in Fort Wayne (now Vicar General of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and Pastor of Our Lady of Good Hope Church), arrived at St. Peter’s Square. Members of the pilgrimage were excited to hold tickets to a Wednesday general audience with Pope Benedict XVI.
Most of those tickets were for the general admission area of the square. But thanks to the graciousness of Bishop John M. D’Arcy, four were for an elevated area located up the stairs of St. Peter’s Basilica, near the front of the barricades and where the pope sits during the audience. A chaperone, Father Gurtner, and two of the teenagers made their way up front.
“It was a glorious day,” without a cloud in the sky, remembered Father Gurtner shortly afterward.
In those days, when the pope finished his general audience, he would go down one side and greet people individually, said Father Gurtner. “Then he’d get in the popemobile and go down the other side. We happened to be pretty much up front on the second side, so when the pope came by, I was able to take his hand and kiss the ring.”
For several centuries, kissing the pope’s Fisherman’s Ring, a symbol of the authority of a pontiff, has been the customary way of demonstrating respect for him and expressing devotion and obedience.
Sixteen years later, Father Gurtner remembers Pope Benedict’s visage during the brief encounter.
“When I looked up at him, there was like this glow coming off of him. It was so amazing.” He said to the pontiff, “God bless you, Holy Father. You are Peter.” The pope responded, but noise from the crowd made his words unintelligible.
Father Gurtner still considers the meeting to have been a great blessing in his life. Long ago, he thanked the Blessed Mother for it: He believes she arranged the encounter for him.
The Greatest Pope Theologian
Pope Benedict’s solidity in teaching the faith “in a way that’s not stifled” continues to inform and shape various aspects of Father Gurtner’s ministry. “He’s a very innovative thinker, so if you read a lot of his writings, he thinks about things of the faith that are very grounded in the faith, but that are not stale,” he said.” They’re very alive ideas about the faith.”
Father Gurtner was also among the priests at World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, who concelebrated the closing Mass with Pope Benedict in 2008. What was nice about Sydney compared to other World Youth Days, he said, was that there were comparatively far fewer people present — around 400,000. During adoration, “everyone was kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in the park, and it was dead silent. Four hundred thousand people, and it was dead silent when the pope came out with the monstrance. It was very moving.”
In recent years, he has read several biographies of the late pope. In 2021, Father Gurtner said it was astounding to him that before Father Joseph Ratzinger became the Archbishop of Munich-Freising in 1977, he was already a widely respected theologian and one of the experts of the Second Vatican Council.
“He really was the one that formed and drove the council. Back then, he was sort of considered a liberal in theological circles. He didn’t go off the path, though, like a lot of ‘true liberals.’
Some theologians of the age effectively jettisoned the faith, but Ratzinger upheld it. “He’s certainly the greatest pope theologian in centuries.”
A Life Directed by Divine Providence
Ratzinger came from a very simple family, Father Gurtner pointed out. “It’s kind of astounding that from a simple family in a very tiny place, out in Bavaria in the wilderness, that there’s this man who became pope.” Most of the popes who came before him were from well-connected, well-known families in Rome.
A person cannot help but see the hand of divine providence in his becoming pope and a great theologian, he said. “I find his life, and the drama of his story, just fascinating.”
Also interesting, he added, is that the young Joseph Ratzinger was conscripted into the German army during World War II and saw action. When the war was over, he spent time in deplorable conditions at an American prisoner of war camp.
In hindsight and given the physical condition in which the last years of his life found Pope Benedict XVI, his resignation seems to have been a wise move, Father Gurtner felt. “There was just no way he could have governed the Church; he was so frail.”
There was reluctance on Cardinal Ratzinger’s part to be in Rome and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Father Gurtner pointed out, and a well-documented reticence to become pope. “All he ever wanted was to be a normal professor in the academic world. He did not want to be a cardinal, or in the limelight.”
He asked Pope John Paul II several times to relieve him of the duty of being head of the CDF. The pope refused.
“So, he was certainly not one who looked for glory, or for the limelight.”
During his days as a professor in Germany, his lectures were packed to the gills, Father Gurtner said. His theology was so fresh, so new at that time, that students crammed into the lecture halls to hear him. His theology informs the world in a way most people don’t realize.
Before the Second Vatican Council came out, theology was very tied to propositions, as in “’These are the things we believe.’ The freshness of Pope Benedict, even as a young theologian, it wasn’t just about this proposition and this one, it was about the person of Jesus Christ. We don’t realize that that’s not what they were preaching and teaching before the Second Vatican Council. It was very much you have to believe this, this, and this, and you have to do these Catholic practices. It was very stilted and ossified.
“He brought a perspective that nobody was bringing. You can see how that would be the fuel for what came from the Second Vatican Council, because it was very much about relationship with Christ, that Jesus is the Word. In fact, one of the arguments he had at the council was with this old guard school that wanted to keep things the way they were and didn’t want this sort of new way to think about things to take hold. They maintained an emphasis on the traditional theological expression of how revelation came to us, through Scripture and Tradition. Pope Benedict said, yes, those are the funnels, but there is only one Word of God, and that is Jesus.
“I know that sounds subtle, but it was really revolutionary thinking of that time. And we, now, take it completely for granted because of that.”
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