Born in 1951, I have lived during six papacies—Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI—four Italians, a Pole, and a German, six men in white walking around in a field of Roman numerals. Although John XXIII is already “Blessed” and John Paul II was a paradigm-shifting statesman, for my money, Benedict XVI is the best pope of my lifetime.
I think of these popes as musicians. John XXIII was like a jovial folk singer (Burl Ives, maybe), and John Paul II was a rock ’n roll superstar (Bono). Benedict XVI? He is a musician of incomparable subtlety and brilliance. Benedict XVI is Bach or maybe his own favorite musician (Mozart).
Fact is, I’m prejudiced. Because Benedict XVI is not really my sixth pope, but my first. Josef Cardinal Ratzinger became His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, two years before I became a Catholic.
I remember watching my grandmother’s scratchy black-and-white TV as smoke puffed out on October 28, 1958, and John XXIII became pope. But I watched this moment as a seven-year-old Sunday School student in a Congregational church. Twenty years later I read media reports of the sudden death of John Paul I, with a copy of The Imitation of Christ on his chest, they said. I bought the book and read it cover to cover, but I was a lapsed twenty-seven-year-old Episcopalian at the time. What a thrill it was to hear an Italian cardinal announce a few days later that we had a pope, rolling that odd Polish name, Wojtyla, off his lips and into St. Peter’s Square. How horrible to learn that our Polish pope had been shot, and how moving to see pictures of him face to face with his would-be assassin in jail! But I was not a Catholic at any of these moments, and John Paul was not my pope.
Benedict XVI is my pope. For Benedict XVI I feel the sort of proprietary fondness that I felt for my children when they were born.
I suspect that many uninformed Americans have swallowed media images of Pope Benedict XVI without examining them. How many know that he is from Bavaria, the southeastern corner of Germany bordering Austria and the Czech Republic, where local loyalties in his youth were far stronger to the Church and even to Austria than to German nationalism? How many know that his father resisted enlistment into the Nazi Party or that young Josef himself served unwillingly in the German Luftwaffe, but briefly only in a noncombat role before deserting? How many realize that he was a voice for change as an advisor to Cardinal Frings at the Second Vatican Council, or that he has remained adamantly faithful to the letter of the Council? How many know that John Paul II had to ask him three times before he agreed to take the position of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? How many know what the CDF is, or what the position demanded of this intensely private priest who would rather have been back in Germany writing theology? How many know that he is the first professional theologian to serve as pope in several hundred years? How many know that he prayed not to be elected pope? How many have reflected on the name Benedict? This is not the sort of choice one makes lightly.
How many know that for Josef Cardinal Ratzinger as for Pope Benedict XVI it is not ideas or theology that ultimately matters but a singular event in history? “What is essential about Christ,” he has said, “is not that he proclaimed certain ideas—which of course he also did. Rather, I become a Christian by believing in this event. God stepped into the world and acted; so it is an action, a reality, not only an intellectual entity.” These are not the words of a mere theologian.
I know how quickly we adopt received images of public figures. FDR. Ike. JFK. LBJ. Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, 41, Clinton, 43, Obama. Each of these names conjures an image that is necessarily at variance with the reality of the man. I do not want the world to sell my pope short by assuming that he is something he is not. I want people to know how extraordinary my pope is.
My sense of loyalty to Pope Benedict XVI may have something to do with my affection for Father Barnes, my first and so far my only priest. I often wonder what it would have been like to live in a time of bad popes, like the early fifteenth century, when there were not only five popes but also five antipopes. Likewise, I wonder what would have happened if I had walked into a Catholic church and not found Father Barnes. Either way, six hundred years ago or today, it would have been hard to be Catholic.
I have a close friend who had a bad father. Worse than abusive, his father seemingly didn’t care about him. When my friend’s mother died young, he was left with a single indifferent parent and a hole in his heart that maybe never healed. I imagine that my friend has carried that wound like a cross all his life, although he does not talk about it. I don’t know how my friend can be such a good man, such a good Catholic, such a good father, or such a role model to me.
With a father as good as David Bull, it is so much easier to admire, appreciate, and obey the pope, my priest, the Church.
The Catholic Church is patriarchal, yes. We address God as Our Father, not as Our Mother, and we aspire to be like Christ, another male. Fatherhood is central to the church, and it is central to me. To be a good father, to embody the highest virtues of fatherhood is as close as I can come to stating the purpose of my life.
When I went to confession for the first time, fifteen months ago, it was my failings as a father that broke loose. My failings of fairness and compassion toward my children, my lapses from sobriety and paternal patience: These fifty-pound sacks fell from my shoulders. To prepare for confession, I had been instructed to meditate on the Ten Commandments—which commandments I had violated and how. It occurred to me that the central commandment was the fourth commandment, the link between the big three at the head of the list concerning love of God and the rest of the list, the “stuff not to do.” The fourth commandment is, Honor thy father and thy mother. Which led me to consider the converse: Strive to be the father a child can honor. This was what I meditated on.
It is easy to be hard on ourselves. My father was very hard on himself, I know. He accused himself of being too tough with his children, which amounted, as I recall, to a few well-deserved spankings and a certain gruff austerity when we were younger that he had probably learned from his own father, Granddad Bull. By the time Dad died last year, this quality had melted down into the kindest sort of grandfatherly goodness.
It is because we are hard on ourselves—because we fail and then feel awful about failing—that we need confession, that the sacrament of penance is such a grace. To come to the capital-F Father and lay one’s troubles down is a great comfort.
When I told my father, Dave Bull, that I was converting to Catholicism, he replied that his mother would roll over in her grave. A Methodist, Grandma Bull harbored a Midwestern Protestant’s distaste for papists. But five minutes later my father was speaking of confession and was making a surprising confession himself: “There are a couple things I have done in my life that I am deeply ashamed of,” he said. “I have not even told your mother about them.” My mother was sitting beside us. Then my father added, “Maybe I’ll tell her on my deathbed.”
I do not know whether he did so, although I doubt it. As a devout Episcopalian, my father went to his grave without the sacrament of penance and probably without a final unburdening of his conscience. He was a private man and a very good man. When I die, I want to know that I have been half so good a father.
The world needs good fathers the way the earth needs rain. The same can be said of the Catholic Church and good priests, good bishops, good popes.
In this Year for Priests, let’s all pray for good ones—and for every priest, good, bad, happy, or sad. We need them, as they need our prayers.