Remembering Pope Benedict XVI — The Good Shepherd
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI passed away Saturday morning, the Vatican has announced. He was 95 years old and had been in frail health for some time. Stream contributor Father Dwight Longenecker shares this remembrance.
I was brought up in a Protestant Evangelical church in which we referred to our church leader as “Pastor.” It’s a title we Catholics share with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters.
Lead, Feed, and Protect His Flock
The word “pastor” comes from the Latin word for “shepherd” which has its origin in the Latin verb pascere which means “To lead to a grazing place, to feed.” This is also the root of the word pasture. The tradition of calling a Christian leader “pastor” connects with the idea that the congregation is like a flock of sheep, and has more ancient roots in the Old Testament where King David, who was a shepherd boy, penned the beloved Twenty-Third Psalm — “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
This theme is picked up by the prophet Ezekiel who says that “God himself will come to be the shepherd of his people Israel” and Jesus Christ fulfilled the prophecy when he told the parable of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep and said of himself, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
Inasmuch as a Christian pastor leads, feeds and protects his flock, he reminds us of Jesus Christ, the ultimate Good Shepherd.
As I moved into the Catholic Church from Protestantism, I was pleased to find that this title of “Pastor” or “Good Shepherd” was used for Catholic priests, bishops and the Chief Shepherd of our Church — the pope.
Defender of the Faith
Joseph Ratzinger was called to the role of Good Shepherd from an early age. Raised in a devout Catholic home in Bavaria, he responded to God’s call and became a Catholic priest in 1951 at the age of 24. He rose to prominence in Germany as a young theologian with liberal opinions. He was appointed as a bishop — the pastor of a diocese — in 1977. As Ratzinger grew older he became more conservative in his views, and became a strong defender of the historic Catholic faith and traditional Christian values.
As a former Evangelical, I especially appreciated Pope Benedict’s teaching on Sacred Scripture. He understood the crisis in biblical authority brought on by the modernist critics, but he did not retreat into an unthinking fundamentalism. Instead he accepted the positive insights and discoveries of modern biblical scholars while criticizing and rejecting their more radical conclusions. He defended the inspiration and reliability of the Scriptures and applied their teachings to the moral, political and philosophical challenges of the modern age. Along with his good friend and colleague, Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger defended the faith, called for a return to Christianity as the only foundation for a just and merciful society.
The Good and Gentle German Shepherd
Before he was elected pope in 2005 Pope Benedict was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the Vatican’s department for the defense of true doctrine and practice. As such, Cardinal Ratzinger (as he was then called) was often referred to as God’s Watchdog.
Because this role included the correction of heresy and the disciplining of clergy who held heretical opinions he was despised by the enemies of the faith and was vilified with cruel nicknames: God’s Rottweiler and Cardinal Nazi-Ratzinger. He bore the name-calling and attacks with a gentle spirit and a dignified silence.
I only met him once. On a visit to Rome before he was pope I got up early on a chilly winter morning to pray in the Basilica of St. Peter, and I spotted the famous cardinal — wearing a dapper overcoat and his trademark black beret hat. He was carrying a briefcase and hurrying across St. Peter’s Square to his offices at the Doctrine of the Faith. I nodded and smiled and wished him a “Good morning.” He returned the greeting politely and went on his way.
He didn’t seem like a fierce old man — a doctrinal hard liner or a harsh disciplinarian. Those who knew him well said he was anything but those cruel nicknames. Instead he was a quiet, bookish intellectual who loved classical music, loved the church, loved the Lord and served not as God’s Rottweiler, but as a good and gentle German Shepherd.
Father Dwight Longenecker is the author of The Mystery of the Magi and The Secret of the Bethlehem Shepherds. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.