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How Pope Benedict XVI taught me to be kind

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives for his weekly general audience

Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 01/15/23

I am eternally grateful to Pope Benedict XVI for his personal example -- an intellectual who put kindness first.

When I want to stir up the conversation at a dinner party, I like to make grand pronouncements on topics I know nothing about.

I’ll say, “Music died the day Vivaldi died,” or “All cars should be banned forever,” or “Soccer isn’t good.” That sort of thing. It doesn’t really matter what the topic is. Whatever outlandish thing I can think of will do nicely. I pontificate wildly and then watch for the reaction.

These days, I say things like this in jest and only carry on conversations like this if they’re enjoyable. My goal is really just to make people laugh. Nevertheless, I’m sure I’m still incredibly irksome at times.

In the past, though, I would make extreme statements, particularly about theology or politics, and I would really, truly mean them. I’ve always had a stubborn streak. Combine that with a stridently academic mind that, when I was younger, was desperate for clarity, and it was a formula for very strong opinions.

I would waffle relentlessly through various academic theories about the Church and the Scriptures. I held ever-changing political opinions. Even as I moved through each belief, I clung to it desperately, only to later ruthlessly discard it. Because I was so unsure of myself and anxious, when I latched onto an idea, I held on for dear life. This temporarily blinded me to all other opinions.

In my youth, I particularly struggled to find my religious identity. This was a topic that was extremely important to me. What did Jesus really teach? What was the best denomination to join? Whose theology was correct? In my arrogance, I thought that I could figure out the truth on my own. But in my desperation to find a solid spiritual footing, I became unmoored.

As I matured, I came to understand that this was a problem but didn’t know how to fix it. I was paralyzed by the choices placed before me. I didn’t know what to believe.

Then I encountered the writings of Pope Benedict XVI.

Benedict to the rescue

His book Spirit of the Liturgy (written when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger) transformed my understanding of Christian worship. He makes the point that right worship is vital for a person to understand his place in the world. In other words, my academic, heady, existential problems could all be solved if I simply slowed down, spent some time in silence, and prayed in the way that Christians have always prayed. Most importantly, in doing so I would make room for grace, make room for a relationship with God.

I didn’t have to solve every problem myself. I could stop fighting and arrogantly relying on my own intellect. I could relax and allow God to love me, even if I didn’t always understand Him. As Benedict writes in a letter to the faithful, “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.”

Here was the key. Here was my new direction. I became Catholic and found peace in the beauty of the Mass. I didn’t immediately become less haughty and more kind, but my conversion was the change that I needed to finally be able to let my guard down. I was no longer on the defensive and naturally found that I was able to be more generous and kind, more open-minded to the ideas of others.

Always speaking truth with kindness

Again, Benedict was my guide. I continued to read his books. One in particular impressed me. Called Eschatology, it’s a serious academic work about the last things – death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The subject matter isn’t why I bring it up here (although it’s a great book), but what I noticed as I read it is how generous and kind he is in his writing. He examines the opinions of all sorts of diverse theologians, always looking to emphasize the best parts of what they have to say. Even with the theologians who got almost everything wrong, Benedict finds something commendable to bring to our attention. He keeps a critical eye and doesn’t hesitate to teach the truth, but always does so with kindness.

He was able to do this, of course, because he seems to have been a genuinely kind man.

I can’t help but think, however, that his kindness was strengthened tremendously because he was secure in the knowledge that he was loved. He knew that God’s love sets us free. It allows us to go through our lives with confidence.

His example changed everything for me. He led me to the all-important truth that all virtues find their fulfillment in love.

I am eternally grateful to Pope Benedict XVI for his personal example, an intellectual who put kindness first. It’s an intellectual generosity that I’m convinced only made him smarter. I’m even more grateful that he opened up the door for me and gently nudged me over the threshold into the Catholic Church, into the arms of the God whose very nature is to love.

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PopePope Benedict XVIVirtue
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