By Mariana Barillas and Matt J. Palmer
CatholicU, Spring 2023
Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy in the Church is tied to education and the teaching of the faith. Learn how Catholic University played a pivotal role in his connection with the United States and is continuing his mission today.
The death of Pope Benedict XVI on Dec. 31, 2022, led to weeks of mourning across the world as well as celebrations of his contributions to the Catholic Church. His passing was particularly personal for many members of the University community, as the former pontiff spoke on campus during his 2008 apostolic journey to the United States.
On April 17, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a memorable address on Catholic education to Catholic college presidents, diocesan school superintendents, and other national education leaders inside the Great Room of the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center.
The University is one of only three higher-education institutions in the United States to have hosted a pope on campus, and the only one to have done so three times — including St. John Paul II in 1979, Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, and Pope Francis in 2015.
Pope Benedict XVI had made his mark on the University even before he was elected Pope. Former Catholic University President and Bishop of Trenton David M. O’Connell, C.M., said that his appointment as president was determined, in part, by the future Pope.
“As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, Cardinal (Joseph) Ratzinger was one of two prefects — the other being Cardinal Pio Laghi of the Congregation for Catholic Education — who was required to confirm my election,” Bishop O’Connell recalled. “In the following 12 years, I was privileged to meet with him many times.”
Ten years after Bishop O’Connell became president, he was there to welcome the Pope to campus.
Pope Benedict, who had built a reputation as a highly regarded scholar and professor of theology before his election to the papacy, delivered a rousing address to educators while on campus.
In his University address, he offered advice for teaching the faith to the next generation of students.
“Religious education is a challenging apostolate, yet there are many signs of a desire among young people to learn about the faith and practice it with vigor,” he said. “If this awakening is to grow, teachers require a clear and precise understanding of the specific nature and role of Catholic education. They must also be ready to lead the commitment made by the entire school community to assist our young people, and their families, to experience the harmony between faith, life, and culture.”
Before parting, Pope Benedict XVI added, “To all of you I say: Bear witness to hope. Nourish your witness with prayer. Account for the hope that characterizes your lives by living the truth which you propose to your students. Help them to know and love the One you have encountered, whose truth and goodness you have experienced with joy.”
Lucia Silecchia, who has taught law at the University since 1991, was in the room and said it spoke to her personally.
Looking back, she said, “Pope Benedict … devoted his address in the Pryz to the important role of Catholic education at all levels. This is the project to which I have devoted over 30 years of my life. When he spoke of the critical role that Catholic education plays in the life of the Church, the world, and the students we serve, it was a great inspiration."
Jonathan Lewis, Ph.B. 2008, was one of the lucky students to hear the then-pontiff. As a member of the President’s Society, a leadership team of students who assist at University functions, he served as a doorman for the Great Room during the address.
Lewis thought he would be in the back of the room the whole time, but was given a last-minute opportunity to sit in the front row, just feet away from Pope Benedict XVI. He said listening to the Holy Father’s reflections changed his life.
“As I look back after Benedict’s passing, it was one of many moments that urged me to continue studies in theology,” Lewis said. He would later work for the Archdiocese of Washington and play a critical role in the organization of Pope Francis’ apostolic journey to the United States in 2015.
“It was neat for me to experience two papal visits to Washington in different contexts,” said Lewis, who now serves as vice president of operations for Catholic Faith Technologies.
“Pope Benedict was a person of deep faith who emphasized the intimacy between faith and reason but also with his great encyclical on social ministry Caritas in veritate emphasized that we are called to go out as missionaries and disciples,” said Lewis “I think there is a connection between Benedict and myself but also everyone who was present.”
The connection between the campus community and Pope Benedict XVI was palpable outside the Pryzbyla Center during his visit. Hundreds of students gathered on the lawn, some for several hours, waiting to see him. After the Pope’s address to educators, he emerged from the building with his arms outstretched, smiling and waving to those gathered outside.
Silecchia said, “I was struck at the time with (the students’) deep excitement. Many had signs that, with irreverent affection — or affectionate reverence — proclaimed, ‘We love our German Shepherd’ and I saw in them the importance the Pope had to them,” she recalled.
Upon Pope Benedict XVI’s passing, hundreds of campus community members, including University President Dr. Peter Kilpatrick, gathered at St. Vincent de Paul Chapel for a Memorial Mass celebrating his life and legacy.
University Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministry Father Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P., said during his homily that the Pope came to the United States with public perceptions that he was “God’s Rottweiler” and an unapproachable academic.
By the end of the visit, Father Aquinas said cynical newspapers were lovingly calling the pontiff, “Papa.”
“It was an important visit, a remarkable visit,” Father Aquinas said wistfully.
“Benedict made a lasting impression upon those in his presence — and those whose lives he touched through his writing and teaching. He will be remembered as a man of great conviction, who loved his Church, and gave his life to serving it and all of its people,” said University President Dr. Peter Kilpatrick in a reflection on Pope Benedict XVI’s passing.
Associate Professor of Catechetics Jem Sullivan, Ph.D. 1999, was not at the Pope’s address to educators, but tells her current students to read and reflect on his important words from that day about the purpose of study.
“It seems that Pope Benedict was showing students that their intellectual formation is a journey that can lead them not only to success in professional careers, but to lasting happiness, hope for the future, and freedom found in the discovery of the harmony between faith and reason,” she said.
Sullivan said it was fitting that the Pope shared his reflections on the higher calling of higher education at the only papally chartered University in the United States.
“The Pope’s words and vision for Catholic education find living embodiment in the work of administrators, staff, faculty, and students who carry out daily the mission of this University,” she said.