On April 16th Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his 91st birthday. True to form it was a quiet affair – “peaceful and familial” – spent in company with his 94 year-old brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, who was visiting from Germany. Since Pope Benedict made the dramatic decision to step down from his role as Supreme Pontiff in 2013 he has deliberately chosen to live out the last chapter of his life away from the public glare. He is by nature a shy man. I discovered that for myself when I encountered him by accident in St Peter’s Square while leading a pilgrimage to Rome in 2001. He was courteous and kind and willingly gave a few minutes of his time to talk but I saw enough on that occasion to be able to appreciate that now he is elderly and frail he has consciously taken to heart the beautiful words of St Paul to the Colossians: “Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on earth, because you have died and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God.” (3:2-3)
Yet this “hidden Pope” is still loved and missed within the Church and no-one will ever forget the quality of his teaching which was second to none. I recently discovered an address he gave at a General Audience in Rome on 27 February 2008. He was speaking about the life of St Augustine of Hippo and I was particularly struck by what he had to say about St Augustine’s conversion.
“…Augustine’s conversion was not sudden or fully accomplished at the beginning, but can be defined, rather, as a true and proper journey that remains a model for each one of us. This itinerary certainly culminated with his conversion and then with baptism, but it was not concluded in that Easter Vigil of the year 387, when (he) was baptised in Milan by Bishop Ambrose. Augustine’s journey of conversion, in fact, humbly continued to the very end of his life, so much so that one can truly say that his various steps…are one single great conversion.”
Pope Benedict is reminding us that whether we were born into a Catholic family and have never known anything other than the Catholic faith, or whether we found a home in the Catholic Church much later in life, we are all called to a life of “conversion” and it is a life-long experience. The distinction that is often made between cradle-Catholics and converts is unhelpful because it suggests a marked difference between those who have apparently always possessed the Truth and those who have had to search for it. Yet for us, as for St Augustine, the search for truth and for growth in holiness did not come to an immediate end the moment we were baptised and/or received into full communion. In a very real sense the conversion experience was only just beginning. Those who have been Catholics from infancy and have had the privilege of the Sacraments and full communion with the Holy See throughout their lives are not “the finished product”. Wherever and whenever our spiritual journey has begun, we shall only be “the finished product” when we are finally with God in Heaven. St Augustine himself reminds us of this in his beautiful prayer:
“Thou, O God, hast made us for thine own self, and our hearts shall be restless until they rest in Thee.”
In the same Papal Audience address Pope Benedict reminds us that:
“Augustine converted to Christ who is truth and love, followed him throughout his life and became a model for every human being, for all of us in search of God.”
And he concluded by saying:
“Let us pray, therefore, that we can follow the example of this great convert every day of our lives and, in every moment of our life encounter the Lord Jesus, the only One who saves us, purifies us and gives us true joy, true life.”
Whether we are cradle Catholics or converts the most important thing for us to remember is that we are fellow pilgrims who are walking together the road that will one day through God’s love and mercy bring us to Heaven – and we are equally proud to be able to call ourselves Catholics!
St Augustine of Hippo – pray for us.