Truth and Love: A Catholic Convert Reflects on Benedict XVI
Benedict was a traditionalist who won people over to tradition with a message of love
There will be many tributes to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI this week in the wake of his passing and during the preparations for his funeral. As a convert to the Catholic faith, I would like to offer some reflections on what his papacy and his person meant to my own spiritual journey, and how he embodied a commitment to both truth and love.
My rocky, multi-year journey to the Catholic Church began when I was in college in the early 1990’s. I grew up in a consistently faithful Baptist household, but serious theological questions drew me out of that tradition and into a quest for religious answers to the big problems of life and society. After briefly studying journalism, I wound up majoring in philosophy and religious studies because this seemed to feed both my academic and personal interests.
Of course my college studies introduced me to many Catholic ideas and Catholic thinkers (St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and many others) for the first time. Through Catholic friends and dating a Catholic girl who would someday become my wife, I experienced for the first time the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, though I hardly understood the magnitude of what I was witnessing at the time.
I was drawn to the deep historical traditions of the Church, the beauty of the liturgy, and the comprehensive nature of its teaching, which addressed every element of life, including personal morality, economics, politics, philosophy, and more. But in my youthful arrogance I was unwilling to concede that this ancient tradition might actually have all of the answers to the questions that beset my restless heart.
I maintained a lengthy catalog of the various teachings or practices of the Church to which I objected, and continued to explore other religious traditions looking for a system of belief that I could assent to. My conceit was that I was the ultimate arbiter of truth, and I had a responsibility (and the authority) to sift through all the available information and decide which traditions had gotten it right, or which parts they had gotten right.
And yet, I felt an inexorable attraction to Catholicism. Three times I started the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults before I finally finished and was sacramentally received into Holy Mother Church (a term I would never have used at the time) at Easter in the year 2000. I had just completed a Master’s degree in history and wrote my thesis on the Cistercian monk and writer Thomas Merton, who had himself been on a kind of spiritual quest that, no matter how far afield it seemed to take him, always brought him home to the Catholic Church. Merton’s witness was enough to convince me that with all my doubts and reservations, Catholicism was the path for me.
I had major hang ups with the institutional Church, however. I was largely ambivalent to the papacy of John Paul II and had read just enough superficial commentary about Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to have a strongly negative opinion of him. I was very much a “cafeteria” Catholic at the time, still picking and choosing among the various teachings of the Church as to which I thought reasonable and good and which I thought outdated and irrelevant. I was frankly horrified by Ratzinger’s election as pope and anticipated a vicious crackdown on all dissent within the Church.
Pope Benedict XVI surprised me, first by being a totally different kind of pope than I expected, and then by converting my heart through his steadfast witness to the truth to bring me more fully into the Catholic faith to which I had professed.
During his eight-year reign (2005-2013), Pope Benedict never wavered in his adherence to traditional Catholic values and doctrines. His teaching and style had a theological depth unknown among the modern popes. But first and foremost, he was a pastor to his people. His preaching and writing was clear and consistently Catholic but always gentle, encouraging, hopeful and welcoming.
Perhaps what struck me most about Benedict was how much his papacy emphasized the primacy of love in the life of Christian discipleship (see my essay on his encyclical, God is Love, here).
“My dear young friends, I want to invite you to ‘dare to love’,” he said at World Youth Day 2007. “Do not desire anything less for your life than a love that is strong and beautiful and that is capable of making the whole of your existence a joyful undertaking of giving yourselves as a gift to God and your brothers and sisters, in imitation of the One who vanquished hatred and death for ever through love.”
This was the overarching theme of his papacy. Benedict XVI relentlessly pointed out that the misery of the modern world was because of our failure to acknowledge the greatest source of love: “We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life,” he wrote. “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Of course that person is Jesus Christ, met directly in the sacraments and life of the Church and its consistent teachings going back to the apostles themselves. Benedict XVI was a traditionalist who won people over to tradition with a message of Christian faith, hope, and above all love.
He won my heart over too. At the same time that I was coming to appreciate Pope Benedict’s pastoral leadership and example, I was realizing how so much of the anguish of the modern world comes from people vainly insisting that they themselves must be the ultimate arbiters of what is good, true, and beautiful. I was starting to clearly see what Benedict called the “dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”
I could see this relativism all around me, and in my own life’s journey. My lifelong assumption that I could find my “own” “truth” had never brought me the happiness or fulfillment I was looking for. Rather, it was in laying down all my seeking and worries and questions at the foot of the cross and following the path of sacred scripture and sacred tradition laid out by my spiritual fathers and forefathers that gave me peace, hope, and courage to face a dark and troubled world.
And that is a lesson I learned, in no small part, from the teaching, life, and legacy of Benedict XVI.
Thank you, Pope Emeritus, for bringing me to truth through your example of love. Requiescant in pace.
Thank you, Gary. Your observation that, “My conceit was that I was the ultimate arbiter of truth,” rings loud and clear as I think about why I became an atheist before returning to the Church decades later.
The world is colder today without his presence