It was over 17 years ago that white smoke billowed from the roof of the Sistine Chapel and bells rang out the announcement that a new pope had been chosen, after only four ballots and a relatively brief conclave. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would succeed Pope John Paul II, taking the pontifical name of Benedict XVI.
On his election to the papacy in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI took the motto of “Cooperatores Veritatis” (Co-workers of the Truth). As we mourn his loss at the age of 95, we remember how he invited the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi to be co-workers of the truth with the Papacy and the Church.
A Humble Teacher
The twenty-four-hour conclave that led to Pope Benedict’s swift election to the papacy was one of the quickest in history, and the result came as little surprise to many Catholics around the world, who already knew Cardinal Ratzinger well as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Many of the Legionary priests working and studying in Rome at the time were already quite familiar with the man who had become Pope Benedict, as a theologian, a cardinal, a prefect, and simply as a fellow priest. Father Jésus Villagrasa, LC, a General Counselor of the Congregation who has also served as a professor, director, and rector at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome shares a memory of a meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger at the formation center of the Legionaries of Christ in Rome in 1989: “I had only been in college for a couple of years; I was taking the first cycle of philosophical studies. He told us about his own intellectual experience, and gave us advice for our academic life. With his proverbial humility, he came across as an older brother, and shared in the chores around the college.”
Father Donal Corry, LC, a member of the Legionary community in Rome, was an official in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican from 1998 to 2003 while Cardinal Ratzinger was prefect, and was immediately struck by the cardinal’s piety and devotion. “Usually, on arriving to his office, Cardinal Ratzinger would go to the chapel to pray his Breviary,” recalls Father Donal. “It was noticeable how, in spite of the fact that he was alone, he would follow the series of positions common in the communitarian praying of the Breviary. This conveyed a certain fervor that was edifying.”
To Father Donal, under of the cardinal’s guidance, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was well-organized, and the environment which prevailed among the officials and the other members of the staff was one of a keen sense of responsibility and mutual cooperation at the service of the Church. Cardinal Ratzinger guided the work of the Congregation with his immense theological and historical knowledge and his experience in ecclesial affairs gained from a life of dedication to the problems and reality of the Church – especially in Germany – and in the world, as seen from Rome. “His comments were full of good sense and Christian wisdom, and it was a joy and a formative experience for me as a relatively young priest to participate in the weekly formal discussions on the different cases sent to the Congregation, mainly by bishops worldwide,” says Father Donal. “I learned a lot from him during these meetings, which matured my sensus ecclesiae. The cardinal guided the proceedings with the tact of a real gentleman. He asked questions when he needed clarification and thanked each person for his or her contribution. At the end of the dialogue, the many reflections were formulated in a precise conclusion or decree that indicated a path of response to the question that was taken into consideration.”
It also appeared to Father Donal that, from the beginning, Cardinal Ratzinger had a substantially positive view of the Legionaries of Christ. “He liked our community celebration of the liturgy, especially the community singing of the Gregorian chant. He appreciated our devotion to the See of Peter and faithful allegiance to the Church’s Magisterial teaching. He appreciated the seriousness given to our formation, both ecclesiastical and human.”
Father Michael Ryan, LC, Director of the Fidelis Institute at the Athenaeum, recalls hearing a story about Pope Benedict that paints the picture of a man of simplicity and humility. “Cardinal Ratzinger walked across St. Peter’s Square every day to go to his work at the Congregation for the Faith. One day, a family met him and asked him for a photograph, showing him the camera. The cardinal thought that the man wanted him to take a photo of the family for him, and held out his hand to take the camera in order to photograph the family, when what they were actually asking for was a photo of the cardinal! It is just one little instance in which we can see the simplicity and humility of the cardinal who was not put out by the fact that someone asked him to be their photographer.”
Father Michael shares his own experience meeting Cardinal Ratzinger during a question and answer session at the Athenaeum. “It was a joy to hear his lecture, as it was for all his homilies and audiences, and then appreciate the ease and gentleness when he answered questions, showing his immense knowledge and memory, but never making it weigh on the audience.” Shortly after Pope Benedict’s election, Father Michael had the opportunity to concelebrate a Mass with him. “After the Mass, he greeted each priest,” recalls Father Michael. “When he shook hands with me, he said ‘How is Philosophy going?’ He actually remembered having been with us at the Athenaeum on that previous occasion as a cardinal – it was a sign of his great memory!”
Father Pedro Barrajón, LC, rector of the European University of Rome, remembers with fondness the visits Pope Benedict made to the International College of the Legionaries of Christ and the Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum. “On the visit to the International College, he shared his own experience of the intellectual formation necessary for a priest to develop his specific mission, and he presented us with a very appealing vision of intellectual training that opened horizons for teachers and students.” Father Pedro also recalls personal insights and wisdom shared by Pope Benedict at various theological congresses and conferences. “In all of them, with great human, theological, and spiritual finesse, he presented the difficult challenges, but also the new opportunities that were open to the Church for the new evangelization, and the fundamental role that theology played in this mission.”
A Call to Renewal
In 2005, while serving as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger began an investigation into accusations of grave misconduct against Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi. A year later, after his election to the papacy, in light of the findings from the investigation, Pope Benedict invited Father Maciel to a life of prayer and penance, and to renounce all public ministry.
Soon after, Pope Benedict initiated a year-long apostolic visitation to the institutions of the Legion of Christ, conducted by five bishops who submitted their conclusions to the pope. The Holy Father then appointed pontifical delegates to the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ and the consecrated members of Regnum Christi, and eventually the lay members of Regnum Christi as well, putting into motion a thorough, thoughtful, and prayerful process of revision and renewal. This process of renewal resulted in the creation of the societies of apostolic life of the Consecrated Women of Regnum Christi and the Lay Consecrated Men of Regnum Christi, as well as the revision and approval of the Statutes of the Regnum Christi Federation and the Constitutions of the Legionaries of Christi. Just as importantly, the process brought about a renewal in the hearts of Legionaries, consecrated, and lay Regnum Christi members across the world.
As Father Donal explains, Pope Benedict played a providential role not only in Regnum Christi’s renewal, but also its survival. “When the Legion was struck by the blow that followed after the discovery of the double life of the founder, some ecclesiasticals were of the idea that the institution should be disbanded,” Father Donal recalls. “From his personal knowledge of the Legion, Pope Benedict was convinced that there was a substantial core of validity in our life and took the wise decision to name Cardinal Velasio de Paolis as our guide in the process of renewal that the Church requested us to embrace. He also named Father (now Cardinal) Ghirlanda as one of the assistants of Cardinal de Paolis. The wisdom, time and dedication of these two men to our cause speak highly of the prudent disposition of His Holiness Benedict XVI.”
Father Pedro agrees that Pope Benedict’s appointment of pontifical delegates was a great gift from the Church to Regnum Christi. “The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI has been of great help to the evolution of the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi, from the moment he initiated the process of accompanying the Legion with the appointment of the Pontifical Delegates. At a difficult historical moment as we discovered the truth of our founder’s life and began the slow work of institutional renewal, Pope Benedict helped to purify what needed to be purified, while appreciating those elements of the Movement that were valid and to be maintained.”
For this call to renewal and restoration, and for the gift of the accompaniment of the Church throughout the entire process, the Legionaries of Christ, and consecrated and lay members of Regnum Christ, owe Pope Benedict an enormous debt of gratitude, according to Father Sameer Advani, LC, a Canadian Legionary who serves as professor of Sacred Theology at the Atheneum in Rome. “He showed us true fatherly love and concern, being patient with our shortcomings, but challenging and demanding in his insistence on our undertaking a process of true and profound conversion,” says Father Sameer. “In a very concrete way, we would not be where we are today without Pope Benedict.”
However, Father Sameer feels that Legionaries and Regnum Christi members would be remiss if they stopped there in evaluating what Pope Benedict means to them and to the Federation.
A Message of Redemption
“I am convinced that Ratzinger’s theology is an untapped mine that all of us in Regnum Christi urgently need to start exploring in a systematic manner, a treasure trove in which we will discover new depths and facets to our vocation as apostles of God’s love in the 21st century,” says Father Sameer. “The centrality of a deeply personal and transformative love for Christ, based on the discovery of God’s love for us, and the call to transmit this experience to others so that they too can discover the treasure that we have, should be themes that reverberate in a very profound manner in our hearts as Legionaries and Regnum Christi members.”
This in-depth study of Pope Benedict’s theological output, spanning well over fifty years, is already well under way within the institutions of Regnum Christi and the Legionaries of Christ. In recent years, the Athenaeum has been offering courses dedicated to presenting and deepening its theological teaching through a chair promoted by The Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI Foundation. At Francisco de Vitoria University in Madrid, an Expanded Reason Award is handed out annually to recognize academic work at the service of the truth, inspired by Pope Benedict’s vision of a rationality sensitive to the truth of the human person. “Knowing how to combine respect for tradition through the aid of Sacred Scripture with a critical and constant dialogue with contemporary culture and a sound analysis of reality are some of the teachings that we must welcome from Pope Benedict in our own theological formation as Legionaries of Christ, and in the Christian formation of the members of Regnum Christi,” says Father Pedro. “I believe that one way to thank Pope Benedict is to collect his entire theological legacy, study it, and deepen it.”
It is perhaps Pope Benedict’s episcopal motto – Cooperatores Veritatas [Co-workers of Truth]– that best exemplifies his relationship with the Legionaries of Christ and all of Regnum Christi; he has invited its members to be Co-workers of the Truth with him, with the Church, and with each other. Pope Benedict’s life, as theologian, cardinal, prefect, and pope, marked by a fearless passion for the truth and obedience to the living Church, has been both example and guide for the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi members, and it is through the legacy of his theology – founded on the simple and radical truth that we are redeemed only in and by love – that his accompaniment of the Movement continues.
“I truly believe his lasting gift to us is his Christocentric theology, which will help us discover our own identity, spirituality, and vocation within the Church in much greater depth,” says Father Sameer. “Thank you, Pope Benedict, for a life of service to the Church, and for never tiring to proclaim Christ to us.”