The Pope has prayed for me, and following the announcement of his retirement at the end of the month I’m returning the favor by praying for him and the future of his office.
Don’t get the wrong idea: Pope Benedict XVI hasn’t direct-Tweeted me, and he’d have no reason to remember meeting me. But during a private papal audience with the members of the joint delegations to a meeting in Rome of the ecumenical dialogue between the Baptist World Alliance and the Roman Catholic Church in December 2007, I and my family were included in this pledge of prayer:
“Dear friends, I offer you my cordial good wishes and the assurance of my prayers for the important work which you have undertaken. Upon your conversations, and upon each of you and your loved ones, I gladly invoke the Holy Spirit’s gifts of wisdom, understanding, strength and peace.”
Earlier in his address to us, the pope expressed his hope that our “conversations will bear abundant fruit for the progress of dialogue and the increase of understanding and cooperation between Catholics and Baptists.”
The chairs of our respective delegations then communicated our greetings to the pope. Baptist delegation chair Paul Fiddes of the University of Oxford mentioned in his greetings that we’d found Benedict’s commentary on the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum, written not long after the council as young theologian Joseph Ratzinger, most helpful in our discussions that week. At that moment Benedict suddenly sat up straight in his chair and leaned forward with brightened eyes. For just a moment he was not the pope but a career academic who’d just learned that someone was actually reading and interested in something he’d published.
Then we were introduced one-by-one to the pope and shook hands with him. As I stood in line for my introduction, I kept debating internally whether I should speak to him in German, which I decided was a bit risky if he should respond in German. Then it was my turn, and Professor Fiddes said, “This is Steven Harmon, a professor of theology from the United States.” Benedict said, “A professor already? But you are so young!” Having just entered my fifth decade of life three months earlier, I received those words gladly.
When I learned the news of Benedict XVI’s announced retirement, several things went through my mind.
I remembered with gratitude my encounter with Benedict and his pledge of prayers, and I resolved to remember him and his post-pontifical ministry in prayer.
I thought also of my admiration for the theological acumen displayed in Benedict’s papal encyclicals and Christological monographs written since he became pope, which I hope he will continue to exercise as long as possible in the service of the church.
While I have not always agreed with Benedict’s approach to certain ecclesiological issues, I found myself having great respect for his decision to resign from the papal office before his physical condition began adversely affecting his ability to serve the church effectively as “the servant of the servants of Christ.” Who knows what sort of precedent this might set for how the papal office is exercised in the future?
In that connection I also found myself hopeful that this decision might contribute to the furthering of the dialogue to which Benedict’s predecessor John Paul II invited the whole church, Catholic and non-Catholic, as to how the papal office might more effectively serve the whole body of Christ.
Toward that end, I urge my fellow Baptists and other readers of Associated Baptist Press to pray not only for Pope Benedict XVI but also for the upcoming conclave of the College of Cardinals that will select the next pope. This is an appropriate occasion for us to remember all our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers in Christ as well during this time of transition. What happens within their communion has implications for ours, for we are one body in Christ.
When we pray for the future of the papacy and the members of the church it serves, we’re doing something significant to advance the unity for which our Lord, and Benedict XVI, prayed.
Editor’s note: This post appeared previously as an ABPnews commentary.