Three years ago I would have never dreamt of being given such an unforgettable opportunity. In 2017, I had taken a solo trip to Italy with the intention of visiting a convent of cloistered Poor Clare nuns; it was a miracle I made my way to all the places I needed to go without getting hopelessly lost. However, I did have my wallet stolen “notably” on Palm Sunday during my stay. Fortunately, Our Lady placed all the right people in my path to get me to the monastery safely and in one piece! On the day I arrived at the monastery, I was greeted by a monsignor who just happened to be there the same weekend as me. I told him that as an American, I had traveled for three hours to this obscure convent outside of Rome and in the middle of nowhere…alone. Impressed by my long trek, he promised me a personal inside tour of the Vatican before I returned to the states.
I still remember so clearly following his specific instructions for meeting him outside the office of Ecclesia Dei and being in awe when I found myself there on the morning of the tour. Ecclesia Dei was the office inside the Vatican dedicated to preserving the Latin Mass where Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke worked for years. Cardinal Burke was a member of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura – Vatican’s highest court. Monsignor had emailed me a picture of the building, having drawn a big red circle around the door I would need to knock. Although somewhat comical, it worked because I immediately recognized the building and door. I stood there and resolutely tapped on what was probably one of the biggest doors I had ever seen! It was a humbling experience to stand there and wait for what seemed like forever because I felt self-conscious; like an unworthy fool waiting for entrance through this important portal that would open up to an exclusive enclosure where past popes have followed in the footsteps of Saint Peter.
After seeing many offices, Swiss guards and a piece of the Berlin Wall gifted to Pope John Paul II, the monsignor took me to a location more memorable to me than all the other historical places hidden in the Vatican gardens. It was the private living quarters centered right inside the Vatican whose current resident is that of Joseph Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI. It felt so surreal; our car pulled up to the very large, but quiet house. It was protected by a fence and large gate that most likely was operated under high security. Monsignor pointed up to the pope’s open window and told me that every so often a passerby can hear the sounds of music while Benedict plays piano.
Many thoughts ran through my mind at this point; I feel in my heart that this pope needs prayers and he must feel lonely in such a large, isolated home. It also reminded me of little Saint Jacinta’s famous vision that Sister Lucia recorded in her memoirs on August 31, 1941:
Didn’t you see the Holy Father? ‘No!’ I don’t know how it happened! I saw the Holy Father in a very large house, kneeling in front of a table, holding his face in his hands, in tears. Outside of the house there were many people, some were throwing stones, others were swearing and using much bad language. The poor Holy Father! We must pray much for him!
I can’t think of any other Holy Father -spanning from the date of 1917 to now- who has lived in such a “large house” as the one I was shown. Can you? It is interesting to note that the pope who retired before Benedict (Celestine V) he went back to being a monk because having been retired, he no longer bore the title of pope. In the past when popes resign they simply go back to being a bishop. Benedict is called “Pope Emeritus” and he still gives his papal blessing and wears the papal white; most extraordinary. Benedict seems to me more like a cloistered pope; like that of a cloistered nun, a pope who knows the power of prayer? I remember quite vividly looking over at monsignor and saying: “I miss Benedict” and he so memorably looked over at me and said: “we all do.”
When (then young Joseph) Ratzinger was seven years old, he wrote a letter to Our Lord, the Child Jesus. This letter was found years later and its contents were very moving from Christmas in 1934:
Dear Baby Jesus, quickly come down to earth. You will bring joy to children. Also bring me joy. I would like a Volks-Schott (a Mass prayer book), green clothing for Mass (clerical clothing) and a Heart of Jesus. I will always be good. Greetings from Joseph Ratzinger.
He wrote this in German cursive handwriting called Sütterlinschrift. Even at a tender age, Benedict would play priest, most children his age I am sure wanted toys, but he wanted items for Mass and the Heart of Jesus. I, myself am convinced that this forgotten pope, this “Pope Emeritus”, still has an important role to play in the Church; the significance of his role is yet to be revealed. I would ask that everyone please remember to pray for him during these times of uncertainty, not only for our entire world affected by the current pandemic, but for the crisis within the very heart of the Catholic Church. It is times like these that the sound of Benedict’s piano would seem sort of symbolic, wouldn’t you agree?
February 11th, the Day Benedict announced becoming Pope Emeritus, lightening struck the Vatican. Saint Peter’s Dome to be exact.