Remembering Pope-Emeritus Benedict

When news was announced that Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI passed away, I had to take a moment to remember his laugh. Though I have never been Catholic, and openly disdainful of “organized” religion in general, my path crossed with that of Cardinal Georg Ratzinger back around 1996. He grabbed my attention instantly with his powerful personality and even stronger ability to belly laugh. At himself. Despite “heretical” beliefs of my own, I honestly had to admit he was filled with the spirit of God and larger than any mere mortal in life.

Pope Emeritus Benedict

By the time he reached the age of 95, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI brought a lot of faith and hope into the world. He will be remembered favorably by history. Today, as the planet wakes up from the holiday hangover and returns to work, there is a little less “light” in the world. The kind of light which illuminates the dark and dingy corners of corruption and exposes it for repair.

Papers are full of his “official” story. They will never portray the compassion and sheer competence of the mortal who became “infallible.” He was also the first of his rank to retire voluntarily in over 600 years. He had a good reason for that, which is another big story the papers won’t tell you.

Ratzinger and I came from wildly different backgrounds but it only mattered for a few moments. My employer at the time, a successful attorney, was a frequent visitor of John Paul II at the Vatican. In 1996, I was his lowly paralegal and still new at that job. I was told to be at the office and standing tall at 3:00 a.m. to call Rome. I was nervous, to say the least.

I had no idea what kind of red tape in Italian I was about to get tangled with, to arrange a papal audience, but I dialed the digits. Benedict was still human at the time and that’s who the switchboard handed me to.

How do you address a cardinal? I was wondering while I waited on hold, since I didn’t know, I decided to stick with sir and treat him like a senator. All I had to do was say who’s office I was calling from and he took it from there. Apparently, my boss and his wife were expected, somewhat overdue and seemed to be popular with the inner circle. That scared me worse. As part of the process we needed another official on the phone. While we waited, the cardinal chatted politely. I was cautious and hesitant with my answers. The last thing I wanted to do was mess up with my boss and I told him that. The future Pope Benedict laughed. Not possible, he explained. He wanted to know, since I wasn’t Catholic, what “faith” I was.

I didn’t tell him “born again Pagan” but did say, “please don’t ask me that because you would call me a heretic.” That really got his curiosity up. I told him I was more interested in truth than dogma and that’s when he really laughed. A big belly roar. “If that makes you a heretic, then so am I.” From then on, that’s what he called me. As soon as I would say it’s me with so-and-so, he would reply “Ah, heretic!” Our conversation would pick back up from the last time, while we waited together on hold.

Why he stepped down

During my employ, I had maybe four such interactions and we conversed on a wide range of issues. For a cardinal, Ratzinger was impressively forthcoming. The last time we spoke, we were discussing the Vatican library. I asked if they had a complete copy of the Gospel of Mary Magdelene.

He “couldn’t answer that” but did give a big chuckle as he said that the whole reason he became cardinal was to get a library card. When he was offered the position, he didn’t consider himself “qualified.” The deciding factor to accept his fate was the promise of access to unfettered TRUTH.

I parted ways with my employer but continued to follow the doings of Cardinal Ratzinger. That’s when I started following politics in general. It didn’t surprise me when he was elected pope and became Benedict XVI. It felt like a good and a right thing, even for those who can’t stomach the Kool-Aid and crackers.

I was floored when he stepped down. I instantly started digging into why. Consistent with our private conversations, he was out to clean up the internal corruption, reveal the “truth” and reform the church. He had a plan.

The death of a pope throws Rome into chaos. Law and order can literally break down in the streets until a replacement is found. Under those circumstances, nobody questions the bureaucrats in the Curia, who actually run the global Catholic church. They run it like a government. All the administrators, corrupt or not, get rubber stamped into position under the newly elected pope and business continues as usual.

By stepping down, Benedict forced a one-by-one review of each and every official appointed to the Curia. His plan was a good one. The only thing he couldn’t control was selection of his replacement. He ended up with Francis. Let’s just say that wouldn’t have been his first choice. All you can do, now, is laugh.

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