Bishop reflects on the Holy Father who appointed him to lead diocese

By Jim Wogan

Bishop Richard F. Stika and Cardinal Justin Rigali had special relationships with Pope Benedict XVI, something one would expect between a bishop of Rome and a priest he named to lead one of the Church’s dioceses and between two members of the College of Cardinals.

Bishop Stika and Cardinal Rigali recently reflected on Pope Benedict and the nearly eight years he led the papacy.

Pope Benedict appointed Bishop Stika as the third bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville in 2009.

And Cardinal Rigali and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger served the Vatican together and worked closely with Pope John Paul II, who would become St. John Paul II.

The official portrait of Pope Benedict XVI is by Igor Babailov, who was commissioned to paint it in 2006. He officially completed it in 2007. (OSV News photo)

Q: Bishop Stika, how many times did you have the opportunity to meet Pope Benedict XVI?

A: Five times. I met him once as Cardinal Ratzinger and four times as pope.

Q: Before I ask about those meetings, he was often perceived as a strict theologian by the media and the laity. Is that a correct impression?

A: He was a theologian of Vatican II. He was part of that process. In one of his books, he said he was considered a liberal during Vatican II, and now he is considered a conservative. 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.

Q: Do you have a special memory of any of the times you met him?

A: 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.

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.

Q: Benedict followed John Paul. How was that for Benedict?

A: I think it was a natural flow from John Paul as pope 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.

He had more heads of state attend his funeral, including three presidents (one president and two former), 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 into the future almost seamlessly. Benedict’s writings were different from John Paul’s. John Paul was more philosophical, Benedict more theological. His [Benedict’s] books were excellent.

Q: Benedict abdicated around 10 years ago. Can you comment on that unusual moment in the Church?

A: It was an absolute act of humility. 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.

Q: Did you and Cardinal Rigali consider going to Rome for the funeral Mass?

A: We were talking about going, but there were too many logistical complications. We have never, in many centuries, had a retired pope pass away. So, if they followed the same process, there would be nine days of mourning, nine days of Masses said every day for those nine days.

But they also were preparing for the election of a new pope, which was not the case this time. But Cardinal Rigali, being friends with Benedict for all of those years, wanted to go, so we tried to make it happen.

But we made plans to remember Pope Benedict in our diocese and give the faithful an opportunity to be part of that through Masses in the diocese, with bunting or memorials, including portraits with candles burning by them per USCCB guidance.

So, I think in terms of liturgy it mimicked somewhat the death of a pope. But when he resigned or abdicated, the question was, what do we call him, because he is no longer a pope and no longer a cardinal? Again, this showed his humility. He wanted to be called Father Benedict and was told that wasn’t possible.

He, himself, came up with pope emeritus. In some of the things he would wear, his cassock, although white, didn’t have the shoulder cape and some of the papal trimmings. He simplified his vesture, but showed his humility in other ways, but that’s how he was referred to going forward.

Q: Cardinal Rigali, what are your impressions of Pope Benedict XVI?

A: I had the privilege of knowing Pope Benedict for many years, going back to his time as a cardinal of the Church, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. 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.

Yes, he was a gentle man. He had a real concept of the Church in the United States and in the world because he was involved for so long in being the chief theologian of the Church. His role changed when he left the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to become the pope, which is a more pastoral position.

He served the Church as a brilliant theologian, and he realized that as pope, he was now a shepherd. In his previous role, had to make decisions that were very focused, to make certain there were no heresies.

Q: Bishop, what are your thoughts on Benedict’s role at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?

A: Despite what some have reported, when leading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he was very instrumental in addressing the rules and policies regarding the abuse issue. He was very progressive in that and on how the Church would deal with priests who offended.

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