By Fr Jason Smith
With Pope Benedict being on everyone’s mind and heart, and today being the feast of the Chair of St Peter, I thought today would be the perfect opportunity to tell my favorite personal encounter with Pope Benedict.
Back in April of 2006, while still a seminarian, I had the privilege of serving at the Easter Vigil, presided over by Pope Benedict XVI.
My only responsibility was to hold the towel for the few occasions the pope would need to dry his hands during the celebration.
One of those moments was right before the Mass started, in the small sacristy next to the Pieta, on the immediate right when you enter St Peter’s.
I was waiting there for the pope to come with one other acolyte and the master of ceremonies. My heart started to pound when I saw the papal elevator start to descend and before I knew it, there was Benedict XVI, looking very, well, white, in his white cassock and white hair, smaller than I remembered him, humble in demeanor, and tired.
He walked over to us and washed his hands, at which point I gave him the towel, which he used, and gave back to me. Since I did not know what to do with the towel afterward, I stuck it behind Michelangelo’s Pieta (inconspicuous enough) and waited.
The Pope had finished vesting when he suddenly noticed that his ring was gone. He turned to the master of ceremonies who gave an exasperated look. Then, they both looked at me.
I probably turned a hundred shades of red when it occurred to me: it’s in the towel!
I muttered something like, “Excuse me a second,” casually meandered over to the Pieta to grab the towel, and presented it just as I had left it, all crumpled up, to his Holiness. I watched him unwrap the little bundle like a Christmas present, and sure enough, there was the ring of Peter. He put it back on his finger and then tapped me on the cheek with a smile, a smile I’ll never forget.
I think we were all surprised and saddened when Pope Benedict announced his retirement. His papacy has been a great gift to the Church, especially his teaching of profound and insightful theology. Perhaps the lesson that most stands out in my mind, however, is the one he personally taught me that evening. As I left St Peter’s laughing at how uniquely funny the whole event was, I couldn’t help but think of how human the pope is.