Last week throngs of people flocked to St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City to say goodbye to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. It was a rare opportunity to do so while a pope is still alive, and thousands of people took advantage of this chance.
As I watched news coverage of the masses of people jammed into the square, my mind drifted back to the morning of Sept. 8, 2010. That day my husband and I stood in the square with hundreds of other pilgrims waiting to enter the Pope Paul VI Audience Hall for Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly audience. The bustling piazza felt much different than it had the evening before, when we’d stopped in the nearly empty square after dinner and lingered underneath its massive columns to listen to the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica tolling in the dark. With each new experience my appreciation of the square grew.
I’ve previously noted the surprisingly profound effect St. Peter’s Square had on me. I mention it again not only because recent events have resurrected those memories, but also because I think Pope Benedict XVI has had a similar effect on Catholics worldwide. Just as I thought I knew what to expect before entering the square, I think many Catholics thought they knew what to expect from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became the new pontiff.
I think he surprised people, however, with his humble spirituality and gentle yet firm leadership. In just under eight years he became a spiritual father to millions of Catholics who felt a profound connection with him, even though most never had met him. Earlier this week I interviewed a local priest, who told me there’s a certain bond that’s formed between Catholics and their pope. I think Pope Benedict XVI has proven that, and I hope our next pope will do the same.