Artist Cyril Leeper captures the embrace of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

The great collaboration

By 
  • April 16, 2015

This Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, a treasure for the Church in his long theological service as a scholar, his more than 20 years at the side of St. John Paul II as the chief lieutenant of the signal pontificate of our era, his eight years as perhaps the clearest and most profound papal preacher and writer of our time, and finally for the courage and humility of his abdication.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the death of John Paul and the election of Benedict, I commissioned a portrait to be done by Cyril Leeper, one of Canada’s leading portrait artists and a Catholic of deep faith and love for the Church. I asked Mr. Leeper to depict the famous scene on Oct. 22, 1978, when then-Cardinal Ratzinger embraced Pope John Paul II at the latter’s inaugural Mass, during which John Paul preached his famous “Be Not Afraid” homily. Ten years ago, Benedict’s inaugural homily returned to that “Be Not Afraid,” urging all of us not to be afraid to put Christ at the centre of our lives. That encounter between the Polish pope and the German cardinal would determine in many ways the life of the universal Church for the next 35 years.

The portrait was unveiled last month in Kingston, and now hangs in our chaplaincy chapel.

In January this year, I took Mr. Leeper’s image to Rome, a copy of which was given to the Canadian ambassador to the Holy See. I had written to the papal household telling them of the project and asking to show the image to Pope Emeritus Benedict. It was a great blessing to be granted an audience with Benedict, who of course immediately recognized the image, pronounced it “molto bello” and blessed it for our use.

I asked Mr. Leeper to include four special symbols in the portrait. The first is at the bottom, a book representing the documents of Vatican II, at which both John Paul and Benedict were present, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which remains their greatest collaboration. Second is the window of the papal study in the Apostolic Palace, where John Paul blessed the Church on his last Easter Sunday, unable to speak. During his funeral homily, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke with great emotion of “our beloved Holy Father at the window of the Father’s house.” Third, from the window are the red and white rays of Divine Mercy, which Cardinal Ratzinger preached was the heart of John Paul’s pontificate. Fourth, the rays stretch out from the window down toward barbed wire wrapped around the papal cathedra, a symbol of Auschwitz. In the age of the wickedness of Auschwitz, God sent the Church first a Polish pope and then a German pope.

The answer to the wickedness in the world, St. John Paul taught, was divine mercy.

The great collaboration of John Paul and Ratzinger, perhaps unprecedented in the history of the papacy, is the enduring gift of Providence to the Church in our time, the fruit of which needs to be harvested for generations to come. In his inaugural homily on April 24, 2005, Benedict concluded by returning to the inaugural Mass of his saintly predecessor. I never tire of quoting those beautiful words, Benedict interpreting with beauty and depth the words of the one he called “the great Pope John Paul”:

“At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in St. Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: ‘Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!’ … Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to Him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and He gives you everything. When we give ourselves to Him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ — and you will find true life. Amen.”

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.conviviummagazine.ca.)

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