I kept thinking about the day I saw in Benedict XVI’s eyes a look that had
a profound spiritual impact on my life.
As I said my last goodbye from a distance to the Pope Emeritus who was buried on Thursday, January 5, I kept thinking about the day I saw in Benedict XVI’s eyes a “heart that sees.” That look had a spiritual impact on my life – an impact that I didn’t expect.
Benedict XVI wasn’t the pope of my youth. Born in Krakow in 1965, I was naturally part of the John Paul II generation. Even more, I had the good fortune to know him since my early childhood, through meetings and conversations that remain a reference point for me. Then, to complete the picture, I read his writings and talked with his friends and collaborators, including my father, Stefan Wilkanowicz.
All of this was completed by a feeling of infinite gratitude for the fact that he was for us Poles a support, a guide, and a witness to hope in the dark times of the communist era. In short, all my questions related to my faith and also to my life choices automatically went to “my” pope, John Paul II.
And yet, when I found myself on October 16, 2005, in the Vatican library in front of Benedict XVI, I was dazzled by his person: Joseph Ratzinger seemed so different from all the labels that had been pinned on him. Discovering his true face was an exceptional experience that I didn’t expect.
Why did his eyes affect me so much?
The newly elected German pope had agreed to present my father, in the name of his predecessor, the John Paul II prize awarded by the Institute for Human Rights of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. This was a doubly symbolic gesture: not only was the ceremony to take place on October 16, the anniversary of the beginning of John Paul II’s pontificate, but the fact that the prize was, in the end, being awarded by a German pope made the very meaning of the prize take on a whole new dimension.
After the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, bathed in sunlight, the ceremony took place in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. After the official part, flanked by Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, Archbishop of Krakow, and Hanna Suchocka, Polish Ambassador to the Holy See, we met in a very small group (barely 15 people) in the palace library.
Benedict XVI received my father, his wife, and his two daughters (including myself) with their husbands and children in a private audience. One thing struck me immediately: I had the impression of meeting someone very close to us. It was as if we’d known each other forever. But the bond I felt at that instant wasn’t so much due to his words. No, it came from his eyes: there was a softness, a depth, and a goodness that illuminated him. It was striking. Listening, humble, attentive (even to our 6-year-old son Charles, who was curious about everything and was running around), his rare sensitivity contrasted with the imposing decorum that seemed to crush him a little. During those thirty or forty minutes, there emanated from his presence, I am sure, a kind of immense gentleness and a spiritual tact towards all those who doubt, reject, or seek God.
When someone remarked lamenting the fact that the majority of Catholics go to church only on festive occasions, he answered in perfect French more or less as follows: “It’s not a big deal; we should be happy that these people come to church at all.” As I listened to him, I tried several times to meet his eyes again, which had touched me so much. Why did they affect me that way? I understood it only three months later, when I read his first encyclical, Deus caritas est (God is love): “The Christian’s program —the program of the Good Samaritan, the program of Jesus – is ‘a heart that sees.’ This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly,” he wrote. In the eyes of Benedict XVI on October 16, 2005, I saw a “heart that sees.”
A French journalist who converted because of the German pope
Another person who was profoundly touched by Benedict XVI was Alexia Vidot, a journalist with the weekly French Catholic magazine La Vie. She told Aleteia that if she were to choose a single thought from Benedict XVI, it would also be one taken from his encyclical Deus caritas est (God is love): “We have believed in the love of God.” She experiences it every day.
Alexia had her conversion at the age of 20, at the very beginning of the German Pope’s pontificate. In her recently published book Dear Benedict XVI (Cher Benoît XVI, currently only available in French), she pays tribute to “her pope.” In the form of letters, she addresses him one last time, drawing a portrait of him that is at once rich, subtle, and endearing.
“When I wanted to explain my conversion to my family, I relied on these words of Benedict XVI, which describe the phenomenon wonderfully: ‘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.’”
Alexia’s conversion did indeed change everything. It was in 2008. During three days she spent at a monastery, she experienced an encounter with God. And Benedict XVI’s influence was already there. She told Aleteia:
When I arrived at the monastery, sort of by chance the sisters who were welcoming me gave me his encyclical ‘God is Love’ to read. I was very reluctant to open it. I didn’t really appreciate the pope; my preconceptions were very negative. But finally I did, and I was immediately totally seduced: it described what I was living! Benedict XVI revealed me to myself as a Christian.
From then on, she began to read the Pope’s texts to get to know him better. “I owe him everything because he has helped me since my conversion to walk in my new life of faith. I have the impression of having a spiritual companionship. It’s a friendship and even a spiritual paternity,” she says, explaining that the pope, as a great theologian, knows how to make the mystery of faith accessible with words of reason.
“Converts like me often have this flaw of being a little too sentimental, whereas Benedict XVI makes my mind work,” she says. She concludes:
Another risk is to say to oneself, “This is it. I’m on the right side of the fence.” But in fact, I’m not. And Benedict XVI insists on this perpetual quest for conversion, saying that we must always renew our choice to be Christian, to rediscover the joy of being Christian. For me, Benedict XVI has refocused on the heart of Christianity, which is a Person. And this God is fundamentally love. Thanks to him, I understood that Christianity is not a moral code or an ideology or a sociological reality. It’s a relationship of love.