By MARIA SERMERSHEIM
The morning of Dec. 31, 2022, I was in a place with very spotty cell service, so I received the news of the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in sporadic bursts. In one area, I learned of his passing. Less than an hour later, atop a hill, I received a flood of text messages expressing concern and offering consolation because many of my friends know how formative he was for me—and I am sincerely grateful for their attentiveness. The camaraderie was much appreciated, but I needed no consolation; I only experienced peace and gratitude in the wake of his death.
If Benedict taught me one thing, it is that earthly death is inevitable, unsurprising, and need not be distressing; for eternal life is promised by Christ, and our hope for that reality may be sure. We do not presume upon God’s grace by trusting his promise. We need simply to run the good race and fight the good fight.
Thanks be to God that we can “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) and trust that “all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28). This remote location where I received the news on New Year’s Eve was Tikal, Guatemala, among temples organized by solstices and equinoxes. I had just learned that, according to the Mayans, it was an honor for a person to be sacrificed because it guaranteed that person a place in the heavens with the gods. These Mayans only promised hope to an exclusive group of people who won a rigorous athletic competition and submitted to human sacrifice as their prize. Such a strange perspective contrasted strikingly with the grace of God and Christ’s redemption of our sinful world, so it was the strangest thing to receive the news of Benedict’s passing in this place that never knew Christ (The Mayan population abandoned the location around 900 AD). Here I stood between temples, reflecting gratefully on Benedict, his life, and his writings—not mourning on the morning of his death—because he had given me such sure hope in Christ.
After I explained this hope to a friend, he sent me this passage by the theologian Paul Tillich:
“…we ask the question of our personal participation in the eternal. Do we have a right to hope for it? The answer is: We have a right to such ultimate hope, even in view of the end of all other hopes, even in the face of death. For we experience the presence of the eternal in us and in our world here and now. We experience it in moments of silence and in hours of creativity…in the unconditional seriousness of the moral command and in the ecstasy of love…when we discover a lasting truth and feel the need for a great sacrifice…in the beauty that life reveals as well as in the demonic darkness of it.”
These descriptions summarize my experiences in reading the work of former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. So upon hearing the news of his death, I was not disturbed; I was not saddened; I could only say gratefully, lovingly, contentedly: “Thanks be to God for that good man. God bless him.” I could only trust – from the depths of eternity that I experienced in his words – that he was now sharing in that eternity. No other reaction was possible for me because he is the man who nurtured my sure faith and hope. Benedict XVI’s evident love of Christ, by word and example, cast out all fear of death.
Thanks be to God.
Maria Sermersheim is a 2018 alumna of Reitz Memorial High School and a 2022 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. She welcomes emails at [email protected]