Learning to love "God's rottweiler" thanks to Pope Francis
My dear young friends, I want to invite you to “dare to love.” 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 forever through love.Love is the only force capable of changing the heart of the human person and of all humanity, by making fruitful the relations between men and women, between rich and poor, between cultures and civilizations. —Benedict XVI, Message for the 22nd World Youth Day, January 2007
From the moment he stepped out onto that balcony, I knew I had been defeated. My 41-year battle was over, the terms of surrender defined, the barriers overturned, soon to be smashed into dust.
Francis didn’t appear armed with soldiers or tanks—or any weapon, save humility; his victory was as swift as his smile as he—successor of Peter—sought our prayers.
I was moved beyond my own understanding.
In my imagining, I became like the returning prodigal: I saw Francis as running to meet me while I was still a long way off.
And so, suddenly and almost inexplicably, I returned to the Church I had abandoned at age 14, the one that I had cursed long before developing any of the intellectual and spiritual tools I would need to wrest 2,000 years of accumulated wisdom from its teachings, or to appreciate the joy of its precious deposit of faith.
My journey back in time had begun amid strange new names: Augustine, Aquinas, Ignatius and Merton all quickly made themselves known through confessions and conversion stories, commentaries and contemplations.
I came back and fell in love.
Long before Francis, long before my return, St. John Paul II’s papacy had loomed large for me. My lifelong interest in politics and world affairs informed me that he helped to dramatically changed the course of history. Working as one, the US president, the British prime minister and the Bishop of Rome had crushed the last vestiges of Soviet-dominated totalitarianism from Eastern European. For that John Paul had my deep respect, if not my heart.
After John Paul’s passing, the papal election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Benedict XVI, seemed a giant step backward.
He appeared to be everything about the Church that I had come to despise: cold; self-righteous; accusatory; vain; greedy.
Harsh words, those, and I applied them to Benedict as soon as his gray head peeked over the balcony of Saint Peter’s.
No doubt my perceptions were formed partly because Ratzinger was German (and thus, in my mind, too closely associated with the militarism and fascism that he had lived through and somehow managed to survive), and because he had served as the prefect of the congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Through consistently negative media reinforcement, I—like much of the world—had come to think of him as “the Rottweiler” in charge of propaganda and enforcement.
And so like much of the world, I dismissed Benedict. He could not get my attention except in the negative.
That has changed.
One of the treasured tenets of my faith, learned since my return, is that God stands outside of time. My prayers, my beliefs, my faith itself are timeless to God. My return to the Church is as if I had never left.
And so it is with my understanding, my respect and my love for Benedict today; it is a post factum affair not only of the heart but of the head as well.
Francis’ humble first steps forced my attention back to Rome. As comprehension and appreciation deepened, I came finally to understand the man, and the pastor, whom Francis still so often references. I discovered that what I had called “coldness” was actually shyness, mixed with academic brilliance. What I saw as self-righteousness and accusation was really just a pastor’s focused teaching and guidance, expressed with both confidence and love.
Reread that quote above, from Benedict addressing the 22nd Annual World Youth Day in 2007. Those are not the words of a cold, dark and brooding enforcer. Those are words of love—words that thoroughly understand human nature, words that seek to foster human relationships. Words that dare us to love each other, ourselves and our God.
There is an Internet meme that shows the likenesses of the past three popes. Underneath John Paul II are the words This Is What We Believe, underneath Benedict: This Is Why We Believe It, and below Francis: Now, Go Do It.
Like all memes this clearly exaggerates. Yet it does point toward a basic underlying truth.
If Francis is seen today as the world’s pastor from a still imperfect Church—a pastor who seeks to more broadly expose God’s mercy, charity and forgiveness to a fallen world in great need of all three—much of his mission can only be understood in the context of who and what has preceded him.
Benedict’s numerous books and writings stretch back many decades, and I invite you to begin, today, to expose yourself to them, because his academic yet accessible writings have helped set the stage for Francis’s pastoral mission.
Mercy and charity and forgiveness only make sense in the context of a world enslaved by—dare I say it?—sin. If man were without blemish, any talk of God’s mercy and forgiveness would be so much wasted breath. In fact, it would make no sense at all. Where Benedict defined, Francis now carries through, one fully dependent upon the other.
Also true of my journey. What began with Francis has—against all my expectations—circled back to Benedict, and now looks far beyond.
I am still reading. I am still learning. And I find, more and more, that the clarity of Benedict’s inspiring instruction helps illuminate the very road upon which I travel.
Let me be clear: no one mortal binds me to this place. Yes, Francis surely did bring me back. But in the end, it’s Christ and the Church itself, and all that has gone before, that now keeps me here.
I thank Benedict for his role in helping me realize that.
Tom Zampino is an attorney in private practice in New York City who makes his home on Long Island. He and his beautiful and accomplished wife have raised two fantastic daughters, four cats, two dogs and various other domesticated creatures over the past three decades. He blogs at Grace Pending.