Pope Francis prays over the casket of the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI Pope Francis prays over the casket of the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI  (Vatican Media)

Cardinal Gregory: Benedict was a teacher who both spoke and listened

Cardinal Wilton Gregory reflects on the gift of three recent Popes after Benedict XVI was laid to rest, saying the late Pope Emeritus linked him to the other Popes he has met face-to-face.

By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp

Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., was one of the many Cardinals present for the Solemn Requiem Mass for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI celebrated on Thursday.

During Cardinal Gregory’s episcopal ministry, he has dealt with three Popes, having been called to the service of bishop by Pope John Paul II.

Most of his tenure as Archbishop of Atlanta was under Benedict XVI, and he was appointed Archbishop of Washington and subsequently created a cardinal by Pope Francis.

In an interview with Vatican News, Cardinal Gregory explores the particular gift God gave the Church through each of these Popes, as well as several memories he has of the late Pope Emeritus.

John Paul II engaged the entire world

Cardinal Gregory: If a global overview is accurate or even possible, I'd like to begin by saying that my experience of Saint John Paul II was that he was a Pope who engaged the entire world. He was a missionary Pope who visited places, that had never had a visit by the Pope. His great gifts of language allowed him to engage people directly in their language.

His openness to the cultural variations that fill the Church were clear.There are all kinds of pictures of him wearing native garb and hats and other pieces of clothing that were given to him as a gift. But also in those encounters he demonstrated that the whole world belonged to the Church and he was going to try to visit every corner, every nook and granny of this global Church that we are blessed to have.

Benedict the professor

Pope Benedict, I experienced personally, but also from observation, was the professorial Pope. He was the teacher Pope, and he called upon his own great talents, great gifts, great experience as a scholar and as a professor.

And he taught the Church in many of the same ways that I'm sure he did as a professor at a university that he would engage the students -- he'd be one who was standing in front of the classroom, not just speaking, but listening. A good teacher always listens, because in listening you discover what the students don't understand, and what they understand quite well, by their questions and their interactions.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory
Cardinal Wilton Gregory

Pope Francis reminds us of the least

Pope Francis has reminded the Church of something that the Lord Jesus told us -- that is the poor, the marginalized and disenfranchised are the least of his sisters and brothers and he's present in them. And more than that, he has chided the Church -- all of us -- to be more actively engaged in caring for the poor, the people living on the edges of society and those who are living in desperation poverty.

He's talked about the fact that the earth is a common home and that we are responsible -- all of us -- to care for this common home that is ours because it's given to us as a legacy that we're supposed to care for, nurture, and then pass on to future generations. And the Holy Father Pope Francis, doesn't just do these things himself, but he keeps reminding us that this is an activity that is more than something that the Pope does. It's something that we all must do, that is reach out in charity and in justice, to care for those whose lives are so fragile and desperately in need of the Gospel and in need of Gospel charity.

Memories of Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict was always engaging. I don't think he was ever put off by challenging questions. As I mentioned before, he was a professor and so he understood what standing in a lecture hall or a classroom meant -- that you could be confronted with difficult, challenging questions. But I also think that he changed the tenor of the ad limina visits by moving from the traditional meeting with the diocesan bishop one on one, and then if there were auxiliary bishops or retired bishops who were present, he would bring them in. Pope Benedict developed the tradition of gathering the bishops of a metropolitan province to talk about the Church in a specific region. That was his innovation….

He changed that configuration of the ad limina because I think Pope Benedict needed a classroom! But also because he wanted to see more in a more structural way, the challenges that the Church faced, both in our country, and in other countries around the world…. And now Pope Francis has ratcheted it up to another degree. He gathers much larger regions beyond the provinces…. He begins by saying, “Let's talk. Let me hear from you, and there's nothing you want to raise that would be inappropriate or unwelcome. And another dynamic that has developed in that way of doing the ad limina, is that bishops talk to each other. And I think that's another challenge that Pope Francis wants to lay down before the episcopate – “Brothers, you're not here just to talk to me, you're not here just to talk to the curial officials, you're here to talk to each other as well in the context and in the presence of the Pope….

All Popes’s recent predecessors “present” in the Piazza

As I sat in the piazza one of my thoughts took me back to the first time that I ever visited Saint Peter’s. I had just arrived in Rome. It was in August of 76…. After pranzo, I walked into Saint Peter’s for the first time. I also, on that one occasion went all the way up to the top of the cupola. I was young enough to do that…. But I saw Saint Peter’s for the first time. And like most people, I was just amazed at its beauty, its size, its dimensions, etc.

But today, as I sat there, praying for the repose of the soul of Pope Benedict and listening to the words of Pope Francis, I let those years collapse in in my heart and to say, “What a wonderful journey of faith I've experienced. How precious is the faith that I share with Catholics throughout the world.”

As I looked around and saw, the group of cardinals and bishops and priests, there is a sense of oneness that we have, sometimes we lose sight of that. And that's a terrible loss because if we lose sight of our oneness, we lose sight of what Christ calls us to be. As I looked around and saw bishops from different cultures and different races and different ages, different ritual families, I got a sense of the episcopate that you don't get even when you gather as a national group… It was a wonderful experience.

And I also, heard in the words of Pope Francis, in his very warm and, I think, loving tribute to Pope Benedict, he linked me to the other Popes that I have had a chance to meet face to face because they are also the Popes Pope Francis has known even more closely than I have. I was on ceremonies on a few occasions with Saint Paul VI, we didn't have any personal dialogue, but I saw him toward the end of his ministry and a long and distinguished life of service. I missed the entire pontificate of Pope John Paul the first because I was home as a student for a summer break. Then I saw Pope John Paul II expanding the church -- his travels, gave this message, “The Church is out there in the world and I'm going to visit as much of it as I can”.

And then, Pope Benedict who obviously has gone to God and I think about him as, as one who was a teacher and engaged the Church in a lecture hall classroom style. But always inviting us to be faithful, and to know the faith, to live the faith….

I'm very happy to have this opportunity to open my heart in love and in gratitude for being a priest, being bishop, now a member of the College of Cardinals. What a gift that has been all of these many years and I hope that the Lord will continue to allow me to do it generously, effectively, and with joy.

Listen to a clip of the interview
06 January 2023, 14:46