Encounters With a Future Pope

A Seminarian Recalls Cardinal Ratzinger’s Simplicity

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By Brother Benjamin Cieply

ROME, MAY 1, 2005 (Zenit.org).- When news of the white smoke over the Sistine Chapel reached our community, I went immediately, with many of my brother religious, to St. Peter’s Square.

As we got off the train near the Vatican a woman came running up to us from behind saying, “Padre, habemus papam! Habemus papam!”

This is my fourth year studying in Rome and this past month has definitely been the highlight. I will never forget those moments praying the rosary underneath the window of John Paul the Great when he passed away, and with equal emotion, I will forever recall the moment the next Successor to Peter was announced.

Minutes before leaving the house for the Vatican I ran across two pictures I saved from chance encounters with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in past years. I showed them to a companion of mine and said, “Maybe he’ll be our next Pope.”

Little did I know that in an hour’s time, I would be below that famous balcony in St. Peter’s Square, looking up to the same man in the photographs that I had placed in my pocket. “It’s him,” I thought. “I know him!”

When John Paul II stepped out onto the same balcony 28 years ago I wasn’t even a year old. It never really occurred to me that during my time in Rome, I might actually encounter the next Pope. And yet, curiously enough, I have crossed paths with our new Pope on several occasions.

The first time was during Holy Week of the Jubilee Year. My parents came to visit along with my aunt and uncle. After touring the Vatican Gardens in the morning we were strolling across St. Peter’s Square on our way to lunch. When we reached the center of the square, I noticed a priest walking right in front of us.

He was wearing a long black overcoat and his stark white hair peeked out from underneath a simple black cap. As he strode toward the Bronze Door, his heels kicked up his overcoat, and by chance I noticed the red lining on his cassock. “That has to be a cardinal,” I thought.

I excitedly told my parents, and we picked up the pace so as to catch him. As we neared I could take a glimpse of his face: It was Cardinal Ratzinger. I blurted out in Italian, “Good afternoon, Your Eminence.”

He stopped. Turning toward us with a smile, he responded, “Buon giorno!”

Nervous and excited, I said to him, “Umm … Your Eminence, I am studying here in Rome and just wanted to introduce my parents to you. … They have come to visit.”

He asked where they were from and (thankfully) he switched to English. We chatted for a moment, not wanting to take up his time, and then we asked for his blessing. My father bravely asked if he could take a picture of the prelate and me before saying goodbye.

The cardinal humbly responded with a smile, “Why certainly.” And motioning toward Mom, he said, “But with his mother as well.” Still stunned by our luck, we watched him from a distance enter the Vatican. Later on I learned that he was on his way to see the Holy Father.

In January 2004, a few companions and I were blessed to acolyte for Cardinal Ratzinger when he consecrated as bishop one of his longtime secretaries, Monsignor Josef Clemens.

The Mass was held in St. Peter’s Basilica at the back altar, and several priests, bishops and cardinals concelebrated.

I held the microphone, which allowed me to witness the cardinal up close throughout the Mass. Afterward, we greeted him personally. But what impressed me most happened before Mass, in the sacristy.

Cardinal Ratzinger arrived a half-hour before the ceremony began, earlier than most other concelebrants.

After greeting all those present, he was guided by the master of ceremonies to an adjacent room. From where I was, I could see him vest.

There was something special about his demeanor. He was quiet and recollected as if he were preparing for the most important moment of his life. After he was vested he remained standing and prayed his breviary for a while.

When he finished he brought his staff close to his bowed forehead and remained in prayer with his eyes closed until the procession began. The whole time I was mesmerized, thinking, “When I am a priest someday, I want to prepare myself for Mass like him.”

Last year, my parents came to visit again with other relatives. We were walking together along the streets within the Vatican when Cardinal Ratzinger came walking by. Once again he was by himself.

“Your Eminence,” I half-stuttered with amazement, thinking to myself, “Fancy meeting you again!”

He looked at me with his simple, clear eyes and said with a smile in English, “Good afternoon.” Once again I introduced him to my parents and my aunt and uncle who were standing close by.

This time my father was quick to slip the camera off from around his neck as he ventured, “Could we take a picture with you?”

The cardinal agreed and attempted to take that camera from my father thinking that he was supposed to take the picture of us!

“No,” my father exclaimed with a hint of laughter, “we want you in the picture!”

Cardinal Ratzinger smiled and said, “Oh! All right then … my pleasure.” Luckily there was a Swiss Guard standing close by so I asked him the favor of taking a photo of us. My aunt asked for his blessing and all five of us knelt down in the street to receive it.

It seems as if those afternoon strolls were part of the cardinal’s schedule. In December I met him again, at about the same time and place. This time we were both alone so I continued to walk down the street with him for a while.

I have no photos of this encounter but it was a real “Kodak moment” for the heart. He asked me how things were going and for a few minutes I had the chance to experience the fatherly side in him. Once again, I was taken aback by his simplicity and could almost touch the holiness that he radiated.

On another occasion he came to our house to celebrate Mass for the community. I was in the reception area and watched as his driver pulled up to the front door in a modest Fiat 500. Our founder was there waiting to receive him, and upon greeting one another, the cardinal humbly kissed Father Marcial Maciel’s hands and then insisted that he go through the door first.

These simple incidents told me a lot about the man who recently stepped up to guide the Church. Some might call them coincidences, but I prefer to call them God-incidences, something that God allowed so that I could experience something special about the man who would be Benedict XVI.

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Brother Benjamin Cieply, a Legionary of Christ, is from Columbus, Ohio. He is studying philosophy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

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