Father Samuel Bellafiore
Father Samuel Bellafiore
Americans can struggle to think outside a two-party system.

I think this is true even when Americans think about the universal Church. It’s hard for us not to look for a “conservative” vs. “progressive” all-out battle for power. Inevitably, after Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s death, we will hear about how “conservative” Benedict gave way to “progressive” Francis.
For at least two reasons, that way of viewing things is simplistic: First, we rarely have a conversation about what we mean when we use those terms, about their complex and philosophically loaded history. Second, people are never just positions. And popes are people. Like every other person, every pope has gifts, perspectives and a personality. And the Holy Spirit has something to say to us through each pontiff.

I grew up hearing stories of a mean, old German man determined to keep the Church behind old-fashioned bars. When I spent my last year of seminary writing a master’s thesis on Pope Benedict’s theology of Jesus Christ, I more deeply discovered a different person. I’m not sure the thesis was any good, but I’ve spent extensive time with his writings — and I think it’s fair to say that old description of him is nothing more than a stereotyped cartoon. Media outlets often chose to depict Benedict as stern, but his first encyclical was “Deus Caritas Est” (God is Love). It’s no secret that he loved orange Fanta (it’s much better in Europe, people say). He smiled often and loved cats.

As a cardinal, he repeatedly asked John Paul II to release him from his Vatican job. John Paul II said no. When Benedict became the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, no one could say no. He never described his resignation as a political move — he was simply aware of his frailty. Celestine V, the previous pope to resign, was imprisoned by his successor and died within the year. Pope Benedict spent the last decade in a monastery, praying for the Church.

At heart, he was a disciple and intellectual, a sensitive man who desired to see “the face of the Lord,” as he said in his “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy. Spend only a little time with his writing and one finds Benedict’s greatest preoccupations: Jesus Christ and how people can meet him today. For anyone who wants to know Benedict better, his homilies are the perfect intro (https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/homilies.html). This time of year, consider a few Christmas or Epiphany homilies. They’re simple, even sweet. To go further there are his encyclicals (letters to the Church) on love (“Deus Caritas Est”) and hope (“Spe Salvi”). For a deeper dive, there is the “Jesus of Nazareth” trilogy or “Behold the Pierced One.”

Pope Francis repeatedly highlights the continuity between his ministry and Pope Benedict’s. His writings quote freely from Benedict. He cites Romano Guardini, a major influence on Benedict, as one of his own favorite theologians. Pope Benedict was the first pope to meet with survivors of sexual abuse; Francis credited Benedict with clamping down on abusive priests. Above all, both Francis and Benedict have tirelessly repeated: it is not enough of a solution for the Church to shift around structures or policy positions. Every Christian needs a deep, interior change of heart, seeking to share the Trinity’s love with every person. Without that, nothing really changes.

It’s possible that today’s papacies have not adapted well to rapid news cycles. And maybe that’s fine. God does not give us popes to echo our favorite opinions or reinforce what we want to hear. The idea that we can or should like this pope or that is a little irrelevant to the papal ministry. The promise God gives is that when it is time for every Holy Father to teach authoritatively on faith and morals, he will teach the truth. Jesus says, “I will be with you always” (Matthew 28:20).  

Father Samuel Bellafiore is the parochial vicar of Immaculate Heart of Mary in Watervliet, Holy Trinity in Cohoes and St. Michael’s in Cohoes.