Diocesan News

Late Pontiff’s Teachings Had Big Impact on Diocesan Priests

The Diocese of Brooklyn celebrated a Mass in honor of the late Pope Benedict XVI at the Cathedral Basilica of St. James. Auxiliary Bishop Neil Tiedemann was the main celebrant of the Mass, which was also attended by students from nearly all of the Catholic high schools throughout the diocese. (Photo: Diocese of Brooklyn)

YONKERS — One of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s special gifts, say the diocesan priests who met him and studied his theological writings, was his strength as a teacher and his ability to simplify a message.

“He could teach the faith to seminarians studying theology or to second graders,” said Bishop Emeritus Nicholas DiMarzio after the passing of Pope Benedict. “If you know something really well, you can explain it simply.”

One day in 1997, Father John Cush, then a seminarian studying at the Pontifical North American College, was leaving the Daughters of St. Paul Book Center in Vatican City when he found himself face-to-face with the future pope. He bumped into then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who eight years later would become Pope Benedict XVI. It was a chance encounter he never forgot.

“I accidentally bumped into and almost knocked over an older priest with white hair,” recalled Father Cush, who went on to be ordained and is now a professor of theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers. He apologized to the man and continued walking.

“And I looked back, and [realized] it was Cardinal Ratzinger. So I went up to him and apologized again in Italian, and he just said, ‘No, don’t worry,’ and he struck up a conversation with me. He was one of the most gracious and kind people I’ve ever met.”

By coincidence, the book Father Cush purchased that day was “The Theology of Cardinal Ratzinger,” by Aidan Nichols, and that’s what fueled the conversation. Cardinal Ratzinger told the future priest he thought the author interpreted his teachings accurately, although there was one section that troubled him.

“He said, however, ‘Here, I don’t think he quite gets me.’ He opened to a section of the book, and he knew exactly where it was. But he was so humble about it. And then I asked him if he would sign my book,” Father Cush recalled.

“I still have it,” he added.

Father Cush is one of several priests from the Diocese of Brooklyn who spent time in the presence of the late Pope Benedict and has been inspired by his teachings.

Father Peter Purpura, the pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Middle Village and vice-chancellor of the diocese, was present for many of the significant moments of Pope Benedict’s papacy, including the moment he was elected by the College of Cardinals. 

He was in St. Peter’s Square when the white smoke went up, signaling the election of a new pope. He was there for Pope Benedict’s first appearance on the balcony as pope and was present at the new pope’s first Mass as well as his last Mass as pope in 2013.

Father Peter Purpura, who at the time was a seminarian studying at the Pontifical North American College when the College of Cardinals began their conclave and waited in St. Peter’s Square with thousands of others for the announcement of a new pope. 

“It was in April, an early evening in Rome. We were there for the first vote, and it’s black smoke, and then again, it’s black smoke. And then [we saw] white smoke, and it’s just this overwhelming euphoria that overcomes you,” Father Purpura recalled. “But then it was like someone opened the dam. The word went out, and people just poured in. The crowd swelled and swelled until finally, he came out of the loggia for the first time.” 

Father Purpura was also present at Pope Benedict’s Mass of Inauguration. 

“It was really his first homily that really resonated with me,” he recalled. He was so inspired by the experience that when he was ordained in 2007, he included a portion of the pontiff’s homily on his prayer card.

The homily included these words: “There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and speak to others of our friendship with Him.”

Father Purpura still has the booklets from Pope Benedict’s Mass of Inauguration and that final Mass in 2013.

“I think particularly for priests my age, from an intellectual standpoint, we were very much formed by his teachings — by his writing,” he explained. “He was able to articulate things that really formed who we were intellectually.” 

Pope Benedict “presented a positive form of Catholicism,” Father Purpura added. “Christianity is about encountering God through the person of Jesus Christ. And that’s something that resonated with me, and I think resonated with my generation.”

Father Bryan Patterson, rector of the Cathedral Basilica of St. James, was also standing in St. Peter’s Square when Pope Benedict was elected. 

He had been visiting a friend in Portugal and was in a shopping mall when it was announced that Pope John Paul II had passed away. He raced back to Rome, where he was completing his studies in biblical theology at the Gregorian University.

“When we saw the white smoke, it felt like the dawn of a new day,” Father Patterson recalled. “And when they announced Pope Benedict, and he came out on the balcony, it was really a surreal moment — like time stopped because here’s the new pope.”

Father Patterson, too, was inspired by Pope Benedict, the teacher. 

“I truly trusted him. He had a number of books that he wrote, and he was always very clear. He didn’t raise red flags. He gave it to you straight,” he explained. “There’s a certain kind of satisfaction in knowing that you have a solid leader, somebody that you can trust.” 

Auxiliary Bishop James Massa, rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary and College, said Pope Benedict was “well known in the theological world” long before he became pope, thanks to his intellect and his writings, which revealed a deep understanding of Catholicism.

The future pope played a role in Vatican II because “he helped shape the documents of the council,” Bishop Massa said.

Father Cush predicted that Pope Benedict’s writings will still be read and studied 500 years from now, while adding: “It’s my true belief that Pope Benedict should be canonized as a saint.”