Bishop Stika, Cardinal Rigali react to the death of Pope Benedict XVI

By Jim Wogan

Benedict XVI was pope emeritus longer than he was pope, and the sum of his influence on the Catholic Church will be analyzed and debated for decades and perhaps even centuries to come. Among those who served with and eventually under the man once known as Father, Archbishop, and then Cardinal Ratzinger, and then watched him ascend to the seat of St. Peter, were Bishop Richard F. Stika and Cardinal Justin Rigali.

“He appointed me a bishop, and for that I will always be grateful,” Bishop Stika said. “It was January 2009, almost 14 years ago, when I received the call from the papal nuncio informing me that Pope Benedict would like me to be the next bishop of Knoxville. For that reason, I will always feel a special connection to this pope.”

Benedict’s death was announced on Dec. 31 in Italy. He was 95.

Bishop Stika will celebrate a memorial Mass for Pope Benedict on Wednesday, Jan. 4, at 7 p.m. at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Mass will be live-streamed on the cathedral’s YouTube Channel.

Cardinal Justin Rigali’s view of Pope Benedict was most profound. He was a member of the College of Cardinals and attended the papal enclave that elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope on April 19, 2005.

“I had the privilege of knowing Pope Benedict for many years, going to back to his time as a cardinal of the Church — Cardinal Ratzinger,” Cardinal Rigali said.  “I have always admired his expertise in terms of theology and understanding the Church. He was an excellent theologian and will be remembered as a theologian.

“It was a privilege to participate in the election of Pope Benedict. I can remember when I went up to the pope and knelt before him to show my respect and offer to him my pledge to be faithful and obedient, the first thing that Pope Benedict said to me was, ‘Happy Birthday, your eminence.’ It was my 70th birthday. Pope Benedict remembered that, and that is a memory I will always carry with me.”

Bishop Stika met Pope Benedict five times—twice when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and three times as a pope. One of the papal encounters came in 2012.

“I saw him at my first ad limina. As I was talking to him, I said Holy Father, I just finished the book that your brother wrote about you, the name of the book is ‘My Brother the Pope,’” Bishop Stika recalled. “He asked, ‘How was it? I haven’t read it yet.’ I told him, ‘Now I know everything about you,’ and I smiled.

“I turned to leave, and I walked about five feet, then I heard in a very frail voice, ‘Please pray for me’. I turned around and walked back to him. I was the last one in the room. I walked back, kissed his ring, and I said you are always in my prayers, please pray for me as well. That was the last time I had contact with him in terms of a conversation.”

Less than one year later, Benedict shocked the world by announcing that he would become the first pope in more than 600 years to step down and abdicate his position.

“It was an absolute act of humility,” Bishop Stika said. “I think he wrote in his book that his doctor told him he could no longer travel as pope due to his health. He recognized that part of the role of the pope these days is to travel like St. Paul. I think with his health issues, it was a great act of humility to say, I will step back and let a new man take my place and I will offer my life now in terms of prayer for the Church, which he did.”

While it’s been more than a decade since Bishop Stika has spoken to Benedict, the impact of that and the four previous visits remain vivid. Four of those visits came when Benedict was still Cardinal Ratzinger and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and viewed as a strict guardian of the Church’s theological teachings.

“I wouldn’t use the word strict; I would just say he was very faithful to the teachings of the Church. As pope and as pope emeritus, he was very gentle—a firm and a kind shepherd.”

Bishop Stika said the grace and wisdom that helped define Benedict’s papacy was evident in that transition, from leading the Church’s theological enforcement division, and even before that, when Benedict was selected to lead the Church on the heels of Pope John Paul II—one of the most popular and longest serving popes in the history of the Church.

“I think it was a natural flow from John Paul to Benedict XVI. It could have been much more difficult for a different man to follow John Paul because John Paul was such an immense figure in the Church,” Bishop Stika said. “He had more heads of state attend his funeral, including three presidents (one president and two formers), so that would have been significant, and he is now a saint, so it was a very difficult position for Benedict, but I think Pope Benedict, being so close to John Paul, made it better.

”Benedict would meet with John Paul at least once a week when he was John Paul’s chief theologian. So, it was just a natural flow, and it allowed the Church to continue almost seamlessly. His writings were different from John Paul’s. John Paul was more philosophical. Benedict  more theological. His books were excellent.”

Bishop Stika said that he and Cardinal Rigali hope to attend the funeral Mass for Pope Benedict XVI, but details are still uncertain. Bishop Stika also said that he will ask parishes in the Diocese of Knoxville to commemorate the pope’s life and death during Masses in 2023. Details will follow.

This article was updated to correct the number of times Bishop Stika met Benedict XVI as a pope.

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