Three Phoenix seminarians had a closer view than many to Pope Benedict XVI’s final moments as the Church’s supreme leader. Seminarians and priests at the Pontifical North American College in Rome filled the roof terrace of the seminary, cheering as the pope flew out of the Vatican Feb. 28.
“There was a whole variety of emotions, but overall a lot of love for such a holy man,” Fernando Camou wrote in an email to The Catholic Sun.
“It was very emotional to hear his last words at the Wednesday Audience,” Camou wrote. “He spoke directly from the heart, with great affection and love. I saw a man who is a great example of true, courageous humility and intimate love of God. I hold him in great admiration and I see him as a close spiritual father. I will never forget these last two days with him.”
Camou, a parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glendale, has been studying in Rome for the last year and a half. He met the former pope last May during Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted’s and Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares’ ad limina visit to Rome.
“It was a really surreal experience, walking through ornate corridors with high vaulted ceilings decorated with rich frescos and marble stone. And then, when we walked into the reception room where the pope was, I found an old man of smaller stature, humble, quiet German priest who very simply shook my hand, listened to my nearly inaudible greeting, and handed to me a blessed rosary,” Camou recalled.
Kevin Grimditch, a fellow Phoenix seminarian studying in Rome, was there for that same meeting with the pope last year. He described the pontiff as very reserved and quiet, “but when we finally reached him, it was clear from his eyes that he was extremely interested in everyone brought to him,” Grimditch said. “This little man opened his heart to be that point of unity that the immense office of the successor of Peter represents. In his unique way, he really embraced us all.”
Grimditch first felt that fatherly embrace two years ago during a Sunday Angelus in Rome. He stood among the new class of American seminarians who sang for the pope when he spoke in English.
“Then he spoke to us, specifically to us the American seminarians. He encouraged us to follow Christ as true disciples and to carry our cross with him to be good pastors. It was an amazing first experience,” Grimditch said. “He spoke so fatherly and lovingly, it made so much of the anxiety I had of being in a new country and school vanish. I just stood there with a big grin and said, ‘That’s our father, that’s our pope!'”
It turned out to be the first of many encounters the seminarian from Corpus Christi Parish in Ahwatukee attended. He made an effort to go as often as possible to pray with the pope and fellow pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square. Millions of Catholics worldwide encountered the Holy Father in the same manner.
Camou, who attended several Masses, Sunday Angelus addresses and other celebrations with Pope Benedict, found his words to always carry deep sincerity and clear teaching. That made him a good shepherd, the self-titled seminarian of “The Benedict XVI generation” said.
He found the pontiff’s books and writings equally useful. He has read the “Jesus of Nazareth” series and other theological writings as a seminarian and found them systematic and clear plus rich in scholarly depth.
“I believe his writings on Scripture — making use of the greatest scholarly sciences in union with what has been handed on to us in Catholic Tradition — and his teaching on the central identity of the Church as Mystical Body of Christ have yet to be fully unpacked and will continue to guide us in our understanding of the faith for years to come,” said Camou, who was largely homeschooled growing up.
Dan Connealy, a fellow seminarian who moved to Rome in July, also praised the pope’s writing. Connealy said the pope emeritus while still in office had a remarkable ability to break down the gospels and difficult concepts and present Jesus.
“His understanding of the context of Scripture is amazing,” Connealy said. “It allows him to be able to relate the gospel message in a new way, but with the same message. It is clear that he has prayed with the gospels many times and in his works he shares the fruits of his prayer with us.”
Connealy said the pope’s works and homilies humbly reflect a knowledge of today’s world and the struggles of modern man. The Most Holy Trinity alumni and parishioner has read the pope’s book on Jesus of Nazareth, various articles, homilies and texts of his other audiences. The seminarian reasoned that his extensive writing collection, some which show more complicated thought that is largely broken down, will support the pope’s legacy as a theologian.
“He has also proven himself to be a very pastoral figure. He cares deeply about the people of God and helping them to attain salvation,” Connealy said.
The message of salvation found in Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), played a key role in keeping Grimditch in the seminary. He said the hope that the world offered seemed empty and insufficient. The gospel message contains that invitation to something more.
“He explains it’s neither politics nor economics, neither technology nor philosophies that will save us, but Christ alone who can bring us to the divine life from the brokenness of this world,” Grimditch said of the pope’s writing. “This was the constant message of this great mind, made so simple and offered to the world: Christ, savior of the world.”
Camou found the pope to be “old and yet full of passionate life, he was weak and yet a rock of deep faith. In him I saw a man who had a strong purpose in his life, a reason to live and die, and at the same time understood that he was but a simple man also seeking to better know, love, and serve God.”
In the week or so since Pope Benedict became the pope emeritus, Grimditch described there being “almost cities of journalists and reporters set up outside of St. Peter’s and on rooftops all around.” They’re all taking it as a chance to tell the world the Church’s message via traditional and social media.
“I think the seminarians here have really responded in an impressive way to this chance to evangelize and, in addition to the election itself, it is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. We have the best message, Christ the Word of the Father, and we want to get it out there. The resignation and the conclave have been the ideal context in which to see the New Evangelization in action,” Grimditch said.
As a special treat, most of the 11 American cardinals in Rome for the conclave are staying at the North American College with the seminarians. There isn’t always time for chitchat, but there is time for both groups to come together for Mass and pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
“It has changed the environment at the college a great deal to see these men and the reponsibility they have on their shoulders,” Grimditch said.
- For more on the vocation story of these young men, and that of the 22 other diocesan seminarians studying for the priesthood, visit the “Meet the Seminarian” page through the Diocese of Phoenix website.
- For more on Fernando Camou’s discernment as a seminarian, see an archived episode of “Catholics Matter,” which aired prior to his departure for Rome