I have Kept the Faith | Meeting Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI - Saint John's Seminary
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I have Kept the Faith | Meeting Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

October 22, 2022

By: Fr. Agbaw-Ebai, Professor of Philosophy & Theology

Dear Friends, I have been permitted to share with the community some thoughts about my trip to Rome, in place of our typical Sunday reflection. I will try to do just that. In the Second Reading of this Sunday’s Liturgy, St. Paul writes to Timothy: “As for me, my life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to begone. I have fought the good fight of faith to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance” (2 Tim 4:6-8). These words of St. Paul have come alive in a more personal and meaningful way, these days in Rome.

As some of you might be aware, I am presently in Rome for a meeting with Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI. My first intellectual encounter with Benedict was the Declaration in the year 2000 by the CDF, Dominus Iesus, which, in my opinion, is the most consequential magisterial teaching document on the Church’s self-understanding of the person of Jesus Christ, after the Council of Chalcedon – a Council that has provided the definitive hermeneutical key to the person of Christ and hence, to theology. The reaction that followed Dominus Iesus was that of great hostility, even within certain circles in the Church. Being in my second year in the seminary at the time, we were excited to read all the news coming from Rome, and thus began my interest in Ratzinger: who could this man be that so many were put off by what he had written as Prefect of CDF? Long story short, I became a theological fan of Ratzinger, and in retrospective, perhaps I might have written over one million words on his person and work as a theologian. I had honestly prayed that I will meet him someday, to thank him for giving so much of his intellect and will, pouring his life as a libation (to use a Pauline image), so that all might be invited into friendship with Christ, in the Church, the mystical body of Christ – the story which God Himself has created (as Ratzinger himself phrases it).

Fr. Maurice (Left) with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI viewing the Saint John's Seminary course catalogue and class photo of Saint John's Seminarian's

But when I was told that Benedict said I should come over, I just didn’t know what to make of the situation. I began feeling a sense of great nervousness and anxiety, I must confess. At some point, I interiorly did not want to go! I felt I was unworthy to be in his presence. Perhaps the Holy Spirit who always reads the human heart, saw that unaided I might mess things up miss the opportunity which I had prayed for, for over twenty-years, pushed me to reveal to Fr. Connors that Archbishop Ganswein had asked that I come over for this private audience with Benedict. I must publicly thank Fr. Connors for his insistence that I go to meet Benedict. I wanted to stay back because I felt it might be disrespectful to Nicholas that I miss out on the appointment with his Vocations Director. I remember the Rector mentioning that meeting to me, and I didn’t want to do anything that might not be helpful to a candidate. But Fr. Connors helped me to come to the realization that my absence would not cause any difficulty for Nicholas. Then there was the issue of getting a visa at the Italian Consulate in Boston. If I had to meet Benedict on Thursday, I had to leave for Italy latest Tuesday. And it was already Monday, and I had no visa to go! So, I said, God, you didn’t want me to go, so I must let go of this idea of going to Rome. I began castigating myself for even daring to think that I could meet Benedict. What was I thinking? Maybe I was like Thomas, wanting to see, in order to believe? But didn’t the Master point out to Thomas the better way: Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet, have believed? So, with such thoughts, I told myself on Monday morning that it was over, and that I will send an email to Archbishop Ganswein after the Faculty meeting to say, thank you, but I am sorry that I am unable to come to Rome. As I sat preparing for my Fundamental Theology class, my phone rings – a call from the Italian Consulate in Boston. In short, I had confided in my friend George Weigel that I can’t go to Rome, because I do not see how I will get a visa on Monday to enable me to leave on Tuesday. And he contacted someone in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome who called Boston, asking that I be issued a visa on Monday so that I could leave for Rome on Tuesday. With the permission and support of the Rector, I got to the Italian Consulate that afternoon and got the visa.

I am sure this is already getting too long, perhaps an indication that I am still processing the whole experience. Then, what was I to say to Benedict? It suddenly dawned on me that it had been easy writing about Benedict, than talking to Benedict directly. Again, I turned to Fr Connors for help. And he helped me to put my thoughts together. I hereby share with you some of what I said to Benedict. And also, some photos of our seminary catalog for 2022/2023, and a gift from the Ratzinger Elective Course Class (a photo), that the class asked me to give to Benedict. He was very happy that so many young seminarians where taking the course. He looked at the syllabus and appeared visibly surprised and amazed. He loved the identification of the various philosophers whose philosophies needed to be engaged, especially owing to the consequences of such errors on Christian thought as seen today (I could figure out the rest). I showed him the class list with the grades of each student thus far. And he laughed, hoping I was not a demanding teacher! I asked if I should maintain the grades as they are, given that the Pope has seen them and so out of respect for the Pope, they should not be changed! Some smiles on his part. It was deeply emotional leaving him, and I will never forget the last thing he said to him as I kissed him goodbye! He is a man in the evening of his life, who can say, with St. Paul, I have kept the faith!

Ratzinger Elective Course class photo

I must end this now, here are some thoughts… Bye, everyone:

“Holy Father, first of all, I wish to thank you immensely for accepting to meet me. This is a day that I never hoped for, though I have prayed for it for over 21 years. It is truly a miracle. Thank you for your generosity in receiving me. You have been the decisive spiritual and academic director of my life (…)

Holy Father, thank you very much for your great theological writings. your theology has shaped and is shaping and forming a generation of young priests from Africa. Your theology has shown us that it is beautiful to become a priest of Jesus, a friend of the Bridegroom, to use an image from your dear Augustine of Hippo. Your theology is loved by so many young African priests and seminarians, and for that, we say, thank you.

Holy Father, presently, I teach theology and philosophy at Saint John’s Seminary in Boston, MA. There, also, your theology is loved and cherished. In fact, I teach a course called Joseph Ratzinger and the Enlightenment. Many seminarians take this course. They sent a photo of the class for me to give you, which I will give you soon. Many seminarians of Saint John’s Seminary and many Faculty members asked me to convey their love and best wishes to you. They thank you for your great theological work (…)