Late pope’s legacy continues in lives, ministries of archdiocesan priests
January 5, 2023
People around the world are mourning the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, including several priests in the archdiocese who’ve been impacted by the late pope’s writings, his humility and holiness.
Father Matthew Niggemeyer – associate pastor of the parishes of St. Mary Parish in West Point, St. Boniface in Monterey Township, St. Anthony in St. Charles Township and St. Aloysius in Aloys – said the traits of Benedict that stood out the most to him were his love of truth, his love of the liturgy and his fatherly love.
A lesson “that I think undergirds my own priestly ministry is that truth always has to be accompanied with charity, and charity always must come with truth. And I think Benedict lived that.”
Father Niggemeyer, when he was studying in Rome from 2011 to 2015, was able to attend many of the pope’s Sunday Angelus addresses. The then-seminarian took advantage of the opportunity whenever he could.
Father Gregory Carl, parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk, said he’s often turned to the pope’s writing. Benedict became pope in 2005, the same year that Father Carl entered the seminary.
“I just think of him as reliable, holy and deeply insightful in his teaching,” Father Carl said.
“Any time that there was a topic that I was interested in, he was always one that I could ask the question: ‘I wonder if Ratzinger has written anything about this? I should find out because that would be worth my time.’”
The late pope’s pontificate covered all the seminary years of Father Kevin Vogel – now administrator of St. Jane Frances de Chantal Parish in Randolph, St. Mary of the Seven Dolors Parish in Osmond and St. Joseph Parish in Pierce.
He said his professors had him read the pope’s writing more than that of any other modern theologian. Now, Father Vogel said, his teaching and the way he approaches the liturgy are similar to the late pope’s.
THE GIFT OF LISTENING
As a seminarian at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Father Niggemeyer had a somewhat unique opportunity to learn from Benedict. His four years there included the end of Benedict’s pontificate and the beginning of that of Pope Francis.
Popes are in high positions of authority and responsibility, guiding the Universal Church and necessarily leading by example, Father Niggemeyer said.
“But what I love about Pope Benedict was he had this beautiful gift of being able to actually listen. … He was very intelligent, but he really could speak to the heart, and he could do it in a way that showed he was listening to the human heart.
“That’s a rare gift,” Father Niggemeyer said. “It’s really a tremendous gift that he had. That so beautifully played out when he would share, when he would respond by sharing what was really on his heart.”
Father Niggemeyer experienced that as a seminarian when the Holy Father had an audience with the seminarians of Rome and “he reflected so beautifully on an experience of his youth.”
Toward the end of World War II – when his native Germany was clearly losing the war and the young Joseph Ratzinger was forcibly drafted into the Nazi army – his commanding officer tried rallying his troops. “He basically asked them: ‘What will you do for the new Germany?’ Kind of a bravado thing, trying to build up the young men’s courage,” Father Niggemeyer said, recalling the papal audience.
Some of the soldiers went along with their leader, telling him what he wanted to hear. Not the future pope, who said: “No, I’m going to be a priest.” And he was ridiculed.
In the reflection with the seminarians, “he talked about how he knew deep down that the new Germany … would need priests more than ever because of the broken lives and broken hearts and the broken world that had been created,” Father Niggemeyer said. “Then he turned that into a reflection of how true priests – sons of God the Father, sons of the Church, men of the Church, priests who love Jesus Christ – are needed today.
“And gosh, I loved that reflection,” Father Niggemeyer said.
He said that in the seminary he received “this profound sense of the dignity of the priesthood, the role of the priest as a teacher, as a shepherd, etcetera.
“But I think Pope Benedict really hit the nail on the head with the priest as a father … and how important each individual priest and his faithfulness to his ministry really is, because he’s meant to bring to the world the person and the priest that is Jesus Christ.”
The priest said he loved how Benedict “specifically spoke to the fact that Christ is Truth, we come into a relationship with Truth, and this Truth precedes us.
“It’s not something that we shy away from,” Father Niggemeyer said. “Especially when you apply that in ministry, the idea that Truth precedes us, it forms us, and it directs us. This is what struck me the most, that it’s in relationship with that Truth – who’s a person who we are directed toward and is our ultimate end – we’re directed toward what is really good for us and what is really healthy and holy and makes us what we are called to be.”
The late pope also believed that the liturgy precedes us, according to Father Niggemeyer.
“It comes before us, and we receive it because this is something that the Lord desires from us in terms of our ordering, our inner worship of him and towards him,” the priest said. “What I loved about Pope Benedict’s articulation of that, for me anyway, was a call to be very faithful to not just the letter of the law but the intention of the law, in terms of how I approach the liturgy.”
Benedict believed that anything that involved the Eucharist should be of beauty, Father Niggemeyer said. “We celebrate the Eucharist through beauty and the reception of that beauty.”
OLD AND NEW
Father Vogel said Benedict encouraged a “hermeneutic of continuity,” which seeks renewal while still valuing what is old.
“This kind of idea, especially from Benedict has very much influenced the way I present the faith, both in the way I teach and in how I celebrate the liturgy, that what was good and true and beautiful from the past does not cease to be so for us now,” Father Vogel said in a homily following Benedict’s death.
The pope’s teachings also continue to influence Father Carl.
“His book ‘Spirit of the Liturgy’ is very formative,” the priest said. “His theological writings are profound. His meditation on Sacred Scripture in ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is very rich and seems obviously to be the fruit of prayerful encounters with the Lord in Sacred Scripture.”
One piece he read during seminary formation continues to stand out for Father Carl.
“He has this reflection on the eschatology – the last things: death and judgment and heaven and hell – that was very formative for me during my years of studies, that he wrote as a cardinal.”
The pope wrote “about how the love of God is the outcome for the blessed and for those who reject God’s love, who are tormented by the goodness, the intensity. The love of God is precisely what makes the damned suffer because they’re being embraced in love by somebody they don’t want.
“His (Benedict’’s) eschatology is really good.”
Father Vogel lauded the pope for his humility in not seeking power but in accepting the papacy nonetheless, calling himself a “simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord” and stepping aside when he thought his age and health would limit him as pope.
“He taught us one of the most important things we can do in our life is to pray.”
Father Niggemeyer also noted the pope’s humility, saying he was known to frequent a particular restaurant in Rome to “sit in the back and just read theology and study. He’d eat dinner and study. That’s what he loved.”
“He also was holy,” according to Father Niggemeyer. “This profound holiness radiated from that man. It was a fatherly holiness and a holiness that said ‘I love the Lord.’”