I never met Pope Benedict, but it was just as well. I would not have known what to say, and so I was more than content to know him as most people did — from afar.
However, I did participate in one conversation with the scholar-pope, though it came indirectly through the words of my abbot. The occasion was the presentation of a volume of the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible. The latter was destined for a shelf in the Vatican Library, by way of a hand-off to Pope Benedict during a small audience. In anticipation of that, my job was to prepare the participants for their brief encounter with the pope.
Normally I would not presume to tell Abbot John what to say; nor would I have told Brother Dietrich, the president of our University, and calligrapher Donald Jackson to remain silent unless addressed first by His Holiness. But I had been briefed on the protocol, and so I knew what to expect. Our party of three would have thirty or forty seconds with the pope, and after that the papal gentlemen would nudge him on to the next guests. Our goal was to defy the odds and get as much time with Pope Benedict as possible.
We could leave nothing to chance. “Abbot John, when you meet the pope there’s to be none of that ‘it’s such an honor to meet you.’ He’s heard that line a zillion times, and you’ll chew up most of our time with that bit of formality. Of course you’re honored. You know it; he knows it; and everybody else in the room will end up saying the same thing. Get to the heart of the matter, right away. Forget for a moment the Bible you are holding and say these words: ‘Our first monks came from the abbey of Metten in Bavaria.’ He’s been there, and he knows the Benedictines of Bavaria well. If any words grab his interest, those will be the ones.”
Sure enough, the words worked magic, and they piqued Pope Benedict’s curiosity. He started to page through the volume; and then he began to speak. “This is a work of art.” More page turning. “This is a great work of art.” More page turning. “This is a work for eternity,” he concluded. To which Donald Jackson blurted out, “It only seemed to take that long.” Everyone — including the pope — chuckled. Donald had ignored my advice to remain silent, and I’m glad he did. His words sealed the exchange as a congenial conversation rather than a stiff and almost wordless bit of protocol.
I took great satisfaction in knowing that the visit had exceeded our fondest hopes. We had defeated the papal gentlemen, whose job was to nudge the busy pope on; and we had done so by appealing to the pope’s love for the cultural life of the Church. In that brief encounter we had experienced Pope Benedict’s personal warmth, and I counted it as a graced moment.
Pope Benedict loved learning and keenly desired to see God for himself. May he rest in peace as he begins the next stage of his human pilgrimage.
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