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My Favorite Benedict XVI Surprises

So Pope Benedict XVI will resign (or abdicate, as George Weigel puts it). What I will most miss the clear way he spoke. When you read Pope Benedict, you not only learn his thoughts, you learn how to think.

But I will also miss his surprises.

Of course, the greatest surprise of all is the resignation itself. But Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was so badly misrepresented by the media, it was inevitable that people would be surprised by Pope Benedict. Here are my personal favorite moments when those who hadn’t been paying attention started to wake up and say, “Wow. What a great guy. Who knew?”

Visiting Cologne’s Synagogue.

Time magazine reporter Jeff Israel described what happened when Pope Benedict XVI, newly Pope, visited the synagogue in Cologne, Germany. What he had to say was profound, he said, but what Pope Benedict did was show that there was something new here. He didn’t have Pope John Paul II’s charisma, but he had a gentle, calming, impressive presence:

“There was something happening that went beyond words,” wrote Israel. “It was in the way the Pope listened so intently to his hosts. It was the warm, two-hand embrace he shared with the young rabbi. It was in the somber cadence of his voice as he recounted Nazi atrocities, and the utter silence in the synagogue to hear his every breath.” Pope Benedict XVI got a standing ovation.

His “Love Letter” First Encyclical.

I’m not sure what everyone expecting, but the media sure was surprised by Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical. Actually, I know what they were expecting: “Against the Modernists” or “On Turning Back the Clock.”

Instead, they got an Encyclical on love, whose most famous passage is: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” But it included passages about God’s passionate love for his people, and said:  “The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images.”

His Meetings With Victims of Sexual Abuse.

I remember the day we were covering Pope Benedict XVI on his trip to America, and he met with abuse victims in an unpublicized event. His spokesman, Lombardi, said that it was a tearful and personal meeting. It was further evidence of the deep feelings of this man against what he had called “the filth” that needed to be cleansed from  the Church. He would also meet with sex abuse victims in many of his travels. It dawned on people: He is passionate about this on a very personal level.

Speculating About His Guardian Angel.

I love the “common Catholic stuff” Pope Benedict XVI always did, like defending giving something up for Lent and wondering aloud why his guardian angel allows bad things to happen.

In July 2009 the Pope fell and broke his wrist. He pointed out that his guardian angel must have had “orders from above” to allow the Pope to have a broken wrist. “Perhaps the Lord wanted to teach me greater patience and humility, and give me more time for prayer and meditation,” he speculated.

Telling Kids to Coax Their Parents to Mass

Last, there was that great meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and first communicants in which he shared personal information about his own first communion, and gave great kid-targeted explanations of confession and the Eucharist. My favorite part was when he sought to borrow the secular trick of getting kids to be spokespersons for recycling and anti-smoking, and suggested kids make sure their parents go to Mass. He even provided a possible script:

“Dear Mommy, dear Daddy, it is so important for us all, even for you, to meet Jesus. This encounter enriches us. It is an important element in our lives. Let’s find a little time together, we can find an opportunity. Perhaps there is also a possibility where Grandmom lives.”

So, it’s no surprise that the Pope of surprises should end his pontificate in a surprising way …

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes is vice president of college relations at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of U.S. House Ways & Means Chairman Bill Archer and then spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. He writes weekly for Catholic Vote, the National Catholic Register and Aleteia. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and nine children.