While I was away in Ireland His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI died peacefully at the Vatican, 31 December 2022. His last words were: “Lord, I love you.” remember His Holiness from the days before he was Pope Benedict, when he was simply, and humbly, Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith. It was not unusual to see him, wearing a simple black priests’ cassock, with his black beret on his snow-white hair, make his way across St. Peter’s Square from his apartment on Piazza della Citta Leonina to his office on Piazza del Sant’ Uffizio. He made this short journey most days, and a number of times a day, leaving his apartment in the morning, returning at lunch time, then returning to the office after lunch and siesta, and then in the evening returning home. I heard someone tell the story that one day some tourists stopped him and asked if he might take their photo. He was happy to oblige, took the photo, chatted with them for a few minutes and then went on his way. They were completely unaware that they had an encounter with the great cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope!
It was understood that as Cardinal Ratzinger made this short trip, he was open to encounters with people, especially students, and would walk with them, chat with them, and entertain them. It was not unusual to see young people, from all over Rome, Italy, and the world, walk alongside him and chat. One day I saw a young girl on a bicycle ride alongside him as they chatted together. He never walked alone, there was always someone who wanted to speak with him, learn from him, or even challenge him and he had time for them all. I don’t know if you know this, but Cardinal Ratzinger was a cat person. Rome is home to thousands of stray cats. It is illegal to harm them, but it is also illegal to feed them. It was not unusual to see a cat or two follow Cardinal Ratzinger across St. Peter’s Square. I suspect the cardinal must have carried a treat or two for the strays which he was also seen feeding near his apartment and in the Papal gardens. It seems to me he loved strays, cats, and humans, and treated them all with kindness.
I wonder how many people the Cardinal encountered on those walks over all those years? How many questions did he answer, how many kind words did he share, how many young people found direction and hope, how many souls did he guide, how many lives did he change? Isn’t it amazing, just a short walk, and so much opportunity, so much love, so much grace!
The Gospels present Jesus as one who is on a journey and during that journey he encounters all sorts of people, all sorts of issues, problems, illnesses, needs, wants, people from everywhere and every occupation. On this journey he encounters acclaim and opposition, faith and disbelief, sorrow and joy, evil and grace, death and life. Nevertheless, in every encounter Jesus leaves people with an opportunity to change. In every encounter Jesus loves and offers an opportunity to receive grace. On this journey, Jesus, welcomes everyone to encounter Him and through Him to encounter God.
All of us are on a journey through life and on this journey, we will encounter all sorts of people. What do we leave with them after they have encountered us? Is meeting us an encounter worth having?
The owner of the antique shop on Via del Falco recalled: “I often saw him (Cardinal Ratzinger) as a child feeding the cats around here. He had a fondness for these animals, hence the nickname, the cardinal of cats.” And Cardinal Bertone tells the story that he and Cardinal Ratzinger would walk together, and he would always stop and pet the street cats. “He would speak to them in a language that was neighed German nor Italian, but they understood. He always brought the cats something to eat.”