My Favorite Benedict XVI Surprises

So Pope Benedict XVI will resign (or abdicate, as George Weigel puts it). What I will most miss the clear way he spoke. When you read Pope Benedict, you not only learn his thoughts, you learn how to think.

But I will also miss his surprises.

Of course, the greatest surprise of all is the resignation itself. But Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was so badly misrepresented by the media, it was inevitable that people would be surprised by Pope Benedict. Here are my personal favorite moments when those who hadn’t been paying attention started to wake up and say, “Wow. What a great guy. Who knew?”

Visiting Cologne’s Synagogue.

Time magazine reporter Jeff Israel described what happened when Pope Benedict XVI, newly Pope, visited the synagogue in Cologne, Germany. What he had to say was profound, he said, but what Pope Benedict did was show that there was something new here. He didn’t have Pope John Paul II’s charisma, but he had a gentle, calming, impressive presence:

“There was something happening that went beyond words,” wrote Israel. “It was in the way the Pope listened so intently to his hosts. It was the warm, two-hand embrace he shared with the young rabbi. It was in the somber cadence of his voice as he recounted Nazi atrocities, and the utter silence in the synagogue to hear his every breath.” Pope Benedict XVI got a standing ovation.

His “Love Letter” First Encyclical.

I’m not sure what everyone expecting, but the media sure was surprised by Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical. Actually, I know what they were expecting: “Against the Modernists” or “On Turning Back the Clock.”

Instead, they got an Encyclical on love, whose most famous passage is: “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.” But it included passages about God’s passionate love for his people, and said:  “The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images.”

His Meetings With Victims of Sexual Abuse.

I remember the day we were covering Pope Benedict XVI on his trip to America, and he met with abuse victims in an unpublicized event. His spokesman, Lombardi, said that it was a tearful and personal meeting. It was further evidence of the deep feelings of this man against what he had called “the filth” that needed to be cleansed from  the Church. He would also meet with sex abuse victims in many of his travels. It dawned on people: He is passionate about this on a very personal level.

Speculating About His Guardian Angel.

I love the “common Catholic” stuff Pope Benedict XVI always did, like defending giving something up for Lent and wondering aloud why his guardian angel allows bad things to happen.

In July 2009 the Pope fell and broke his wrist. He pointed out that his guardian angel must have had “orders from above” to allow the Pope to have a broken wrist. “Perhaps the Lord wanted to teach me greater patience and humility, and give me more time for prayer and meditation,” he speculated.

Telling Kids to Coax Their Parents to Mass

Last, there was that great meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and first communicants in which he shared personal information about his own first communion, and gave great kid-targeted explanations of confession and the Eucharist. My favorite part was when he sought to borrow the secular trick of getting kids to be spokespersons for recycling and anti-smoking, and suggested kids make sure their parents go to Mass. He even provided a possible script:

“Dear Mommy, dear Daddy, it is so important for us all, even for you, to meet Jesus. This encounter enriches us. It is an important element in our lives. Let’s find a little time together, we can find an opportunity. Perhaps there is also a possibility where Grandmom lives.”

So there are a few surprises, for starters. Remind me of any I should add!


Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications department and edits the college’s Catholic identity speech digest, The Gregorian.



  • tranxtian

    Unfortunately, I’m fearful that the biggest surprise may yet be to come. The child molestation scandal has hit epic proportions in our church with the Los Angeles diocese just announcing that it pilfered $115 million dollars from the dead in order to settle the cases. I’m worried that there is something lurking behind this resignation.

    • chris scanlan

      ???… In trying to somehow place the blame on Pope Benedict XVI, you have shown very clearly how clueless you are to the hierarchy of the Church. I wonder if you truly are “worried that there is something lurking behind this resignation” or if you are simply hoping there is another scandal. There is no reason to even attempt to connect the resignation and the scandal in the diocese of LA.

      • tranxtian

        I’m quite clear of the hierarchy of the church. To conclude that the Pope didn’t know about these scandals certainly is the definition of insanity. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder when the other shoe is going to drop.

        • abadilla

          “I’m quite clear of the hierarchy of the church.” Again, perspective, context. Just because something happened in Los Angeles, that doesn’t mean the “whole” hierarchy of the entire Univeral Church is somehow guilty of child abuse. This Pope, more than even Blessed John Paul II cleaned house and he was already doing so “before” he began the papacy.

        • Msgr. Charles M. Mangan

          J.M.J. Please Tranxtian: imitate the Holy Father’s beautiful humility. It isn’t about you, your feelings, your desires, your opinions . . . it is about the Teachings of Christ. Jump on board!

        • Msgr. Charles M. Mangan

          J.M.J. You, Tranxtian, have been very unkind to the Holy Father today. But now, ask God’s pardon. Tomorrow is a new day.

    • abadilla

      The Church is universal, not just Los Angeles. So, don’t worry about it because what happens in Los Angeles is not the “whole” picture of what the Catholic Church is.

      • Frantastic1

        Yes, and as we’ve found out, there has been child sexual abuse occurring, and being covered up, universally in the church. Ignoring those facts won’t make them go away. We need to confront that truth to change it.

        • abadilla

          “Yes, and as we’ve found out, there has been child sexual abuse occurring, and being covered up, universally in the church.”
          True and even with all those priests, you won’t find more than 1% of the whole priesthood guilty of sexual abuse but here you are, standing in condemnation of the entire Roman Catholic Church. None of us ignore the facts, but no decent person uses the occasion of the resignation of a Pope to bring a subject up that has absolutely nothing to do with what Tom Hoopes wrote.
          I have also experienced in my long life that folks who are so ready to point the finger at others, rarely examine their own lives to see if indeed, they are doing God’s will. It is easier to point the finger at others as one sits on one’s high moral horse.



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