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Organizer of papal journeys remembers “The gentle Pope”


By Alberto Gasbarri

In June 1985 preparations started for Saint John Paul II's great apostolic journey to India. The visit took place from 31 January to 11 February 1986, where he travelled to no less than 15 cities. Included among them was the city of Calcutta where he paid a visit to where Mother Teresa lived and worked, an appointment that could not be missed.

During the journey preparations, Mother Teresa gave us a tour of her famous home founded to offer care for and provide aid to the many sick rejected by the city hospitals and abandoned in the streets. At the entrance to the home was a large register with the names of the thousands of people assisted. Among the various questions, I asked Mother Teresa how many of those people helped were able to recover, but with the utmost humility her answer was: "Our fundamental mission is not to heal those who cannot be cured, for this there are hospitals. It is to gently accompany them to their encounter with Jesus."

I had the great honour of serving Pope Benedict throughout his pontificate, and soon after visiting him more closely, I immediately thought back to the gentleness described with Mother Teresa.

The theological, intellectual, and doctrinal stature of the Pope Emeritus will certainly be spoken of and remembered by those who are qualified to assess their deeper and more detailed aspects. Instead, my testimony offers a perhaps a lesser-known aspect of his personality: his gentleness that one could sense in private meetings with him, what Mother Teresa called The Gospel of Kindness. "Be kind," was indeed Mother Teresa's admonition, "because holiness is not a luxury for the few. It is a simple duty for all. Kindness is the basis of the greatest holiness. If you learn the art of kindness you will become more and more like Christ."

To those who had an austere and professorial impression of him, he may have seemed to them detached or indifferent, but on the contrary, in his soul, Pope Benedict was full of gentleness and a disarming kindness frequently accompanied with a subtle and witty good humour.

On the evening of 19 April 2005, immediately after his election, as he was leaving the Sistine Chapel, he announced that he would travel very little because he perceived that he did not have the temperament of a traveller. But soon afterwards he realised that the path begun by Pope Paul VI and carried forward with unparalleled energy by Pope John Paul II was now irreversible. In his almost eight-year pontificate he undertook 24 international journeys that required great energy and effort. Unfortunately, due to his advanced age and health, he sometimes showed signs of frailty that appeared increasingly problematic with the complexity of some particularly demanding journeys (e.g. the United States, Australia, the Holy Land, Mexico and Cuba).

In April 2012 during his return from Cuba, the Holy Father asked whether preparations had begun for the trip to Lebanon planned for September. To my affirmative answer he replied that it would probably be his last international trip. Frankly, I thought it was just a momentary sign of fatigue and tiredness from the recent travel events and that it would have been overcome later with a focus on other journeys planned for the future.

Instead, that was indeed his last international journey. A few days later, as I was about to leave for Rio de Janeiro for preparations of the XXVIII World Youth Day scheduled for July 2013, I reported to His Holiness that the organising committee was waiting for the official announcement of the trip and thus whether his presence at the event could be confirmed. The Holy Father replied calmly with his usual kindness but in an unusually impersonal manner: “Say that the Pope will certainly be there with the young people.”

There are countless times when you could sense the gentleness communicated candidly from his eyes. For the sake of brevity, I would like to share a couple moments when it was difficult for me to hold back emotion.

In September 2010 the organising committee of the visit to Britain insisted that Pope Benedict celebrate the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham. I was very clear in explaining that since the beginning of his pontificate, the Pope had stipulated that beatifications should be celebrated in the respective dioceses by the Ordinary while canonisations would be celebrated by the Holy Father in Rome. When I presented my report on the preparations to Pope Benedict, with the utmost sensitivity, he said: "Perhaps Cardinal Newman deserves an exception, do you think we could grant it?" Obviously, there was no need to have my permission for this, but his way of asking about it showed great sensitivity.

In August 2011 during the gathering with around five hundred thousand young people at the Cuatro Vientos airport in Madrid for the XXVI World Youth Day, a strong storm with wind and rain broke out, causing a long power outage and serious damage to the papal stage structure and presenting a physical danger for the Pope himself. Lighting and audio distribution also had to be suspended. The local security and safety authorities were very concerned about the situation. We suggested Pope Benedict leave the stage area and suspend the event, but the Pope’s polite but firm reply came as he remained seated in his chair, saying: “If the young people stay here, the Pope cannot abandon them.” They then waited for the storm to pass and resumed the encounter, bringing it to a close.

I am sure that Pope Benedict presented himself with all his gentleness in meeting with beloved Jesus, as I am equally sure many will miss his refined thinking and his exquisite gentleness of heart.

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