UNTIL I was called to work at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2003 I never knew Joseph Ratzinger.
Sure, I had read some of his writings, after all his name appeared on bibliographical lists from my student days at Banyo Seminary in Brisbane as well as the Gregorian University in Rome.
However, I had never met the man and he had never met me.
In the first week of January 2004, the then prefect of the congregation welcomed me to the office with great enthusiasm explaining that I was the first Australian ever to work at the ‘Holy Office’.
Afterwards he mingled with co-workers as we took our coffee break. I soon realised that this was no ordinary curial cardinal.
Most members of the curia could go weeks before they saw their boss, let alone take coffee together.
I quickly came to appreciate that he was different. He wanted to meet with us not just in the formal setting of the meeting hall or office, but as a fellow worker for the Church.
The cardinal moved with ease around the room laughing, listening and conversing with the male and female staff — lay, cleric and religious alike.
It was obvious to me that he was more than just a theologian or a chief executive officer — as he had often been typecast. He was above all a good pastor.
In time I would discover that he had mixed and mingled like this every week for more than 20 years.
Anyone who has read the works of Joseph Ratzinger will not doubt that he is an intelligent and gifted human being.
But working with him each week I have come to see that his intellect goes beyond the confines of the academic world. Above all he is a good listener.
I was astounded one day as I watched a conversation between a dozen cardinals bounce around the room in Italian, French, English, German and Latin.
After about 20 minutes, the cardinal switched on his microphone and gave a concise summary of the entire debate.
His style was economical. He did not squander words or thoughts for that matter and yet he showed all the traits of a clear and decisive thinker.
Under difficult circumstances and often involving the most delicate material he impressed upon me the importance of applying justice tempered by mercy.
He also taught me that the Truth will lead to consensus and not vice versa.
He is a compassionate man with much life experience.
A couple of weeks ago, on April 16 to be precise, we celebrated the cardinal’s 78th birthday in the Sala Rossa of the congregation. He had just spent the week with cardinals who had gathered from all over the world to prepare for the conclave.
As dean of the College of Cardinals, his role was demanding and time consuming. After a long week of discussions his voice was somewhat hoarse.
Knowing that he had some work to finish up in his office, he returned to the congregation having already put in a full day’s work. What he did not know was that the entire staff was waiting for him.
The look of amazement on his face was soon transformed into delight as our small choir sang an ‘Ave Maria’ by Mozart.
Because of his failing voice the cardinal spoke only a few words. In gratitude he thanked us all for being his ‘family in the faith’. Then, in his usual style, he moved effortlessly around the room greeting each member of the staff personally.
The next time that I saw Joseph Ratzinger he was standing on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica. He was no longer Cardinal Ratzinger but rather Pope Benedict, the 16th of that name.
As Pope he spoke to the crowd only a few words and yet in his usual style they were well thought and well placed words. ‘Above all,’ he said, ‘I rely on your prayers’.
Pope Benedict XVI is a man of profound faith. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger was often depicted as the watchdog of the faith.
My small and limited experience would lead me to say that Pope Benedict is a man who has spent his life living the faith and helping others also to live in faith.
April 20 began like any day at the congregation until at 9am we were told that Pope Benedict had decided to visit us.
By 10.30am the entire building was abuzz. At 11am he entered the Sala Rossa as he had done only a few days before, except this time he was dressed in white and surrounded by members of the papal household.
After the official greetings, the Pope told us that he was here today because he wanted to visit his family in faith.
For Pope Benedict the Church is about faith and it is about people. Above all it is about living in Christ.
He is in tune with the many burdens which at times weigh heavily on the Church and the world.
And yet he is optimistic because he is a disciple of Christ who announces a hopeful message, ‘Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing and gives you everything’.
These are indeed exciting times to be a disciple of Christ. As Pope Benedict XVI says, ‘The Church is alive — she is alive because Christ is alive, because he is truly risen’.
Fr Tony Randazzo is a Brisbane archdiocesan priest based in Rome, who works for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.