My encounter with Benedict XVI: A personal reflection on belief in God as a personal Creator of heaven and earth

By Barry Schoedel

Eight years ago I was making a retreat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Monastery in Oregon. I was searching for God—searching for truth—but was not yet Catholic. In fact, I had recently come home from an extended stay in Northern India, where I was intensely studying Buddhism at a place called the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. I grew up in a typical secular Seattle-area culture; our family attended a Disciples of Christ Protestant community for worship on Christmas and Easter sometimes, but I wasn’t that interested.

In my early twenties I was critically injured in a car accident and had a near death experience. Experiencing my mortality at such a young age fundamentally changed me. As I came to in the hospital I understood my life much differently. I realized that from that point on my life would be committed to seeking truth, rather than the life of dissipation I had lived in my teens and early twenties. I knew that some deeper truth about being human must exist, and my life became a pilgrimage to seek this truth.

It was when I was in India on a hike with a friend that I made a special trip to visit an Anglican chapel —a leftover from the British Raj. It was called St. John in the Wilderness. I remember vividly coming around the bend of this steep, forested, and windy road in the Himalayan foothills and seeing this rather large stone church. I was mesmerized by its stained glass and also by the cemetery which had statuary of the Crucifixion, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and many ornate crosses. As I went into the Church and looked at the Gospel scenes depicted in stained glass, I realized that these portrayals communicated divine truth—the truth that I had been seeking. I felt a deep desire to stay in that Church and to never leave it; it felt like home. I felt so grateful, but was also wondering what it all meant.

This was the beginning of my turn toward Christ and toward an understanding of God as a personal Creator, rather than merely an abstract impersonal truth. This is what led me to make a retreat at this Catholic monastery—Our Lady of Guadalupe– in Oregon, and to begin talking about the faith with monks, seeking God with them in simplicity and silence.

At Our Lady of Guadalupe I told one of the brothers there about my pilgrimage, and he suggested a book for me to read. It was called Introduction to Christianity by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I did not know who the author was but I decided to read it anyway. In reading this book, I encountered a man with a profoundly deep theological and spiritual commitment. He seemed to be at once able to speak from my agnostic perspective but then to liberate it at the same time, bringing me little-by-little to Christian faith, to the Lord Jesus, and to his Mystical Body, the Church. He helped me to see why I ought to take this step forward ‘off the boat,’ to walk on the water to the Lord, and why this was something that I already so deeply desired in my heart.

This theologian became my first real teacher in the faith. I still remember the moment when my meditation changed from a striving for impersonal, abstract truth about reality, to resting in the loving presence of my Creator, being held and loved in the deepest parts of my being. It is hard to explain to people what this means to a man who was once atheist. And then, not long after that he became Pope, and then I became Catholic. What joy I had!

And now to see Benedict XVI turn to prayer and penance, to follow the Lord more closely in this last stage of his pilgrimage in the world is no surprise to me. In fact it confirms to me what I have believed all along, that this is a man deeply in love with God who has sought him out in prayer, sacrifice, and study throughout his entire life. Now he is following an invitation into deeper intimacy with him, something that he has desired his whole life. And as St. John of the Cross said, “let it be known, if a person is seeking God, his Beloved is seeking him that much more.” What a blessed time, what a beautiful vocation. Praise God for he is good, and he invites us all to be so close to his heart, in Jesus. Thank you Lord, for people like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who persevere in seeking you, loving you, and adoring you. And thank you Benedict XVI for saying yes to the Lord, over and over again, and for saving me from a skepticism that kept me from experiencing the love and mercy of God in my heart.

Barry Schoedel currently resides in Juneau where he is serving a Pastoral Year within the Diocese and assisting as a Year of Faith associate.