I first met Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in the mid-90s. He was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and midway through his 24-year tenure as a senior figure in the Vatican.
It was a chance meeting. Cardinal Ratzinger, who was inconspicuously walking down the Via della Conciliazione — the street directly in front of St Peter’s Square — was beckoned by two young German ladies I was sitting with to join us for coffee outside of a cafe. “Vater Josef” (Father Joseph) smiled at their invitation, swiftly changed direction and came to sit with us.
Within minutes, the two ladies, both theology students, had introduced me to the cardinal, whom they knew well from the close-knit German community in Rome. They explained that I was a convert to Catholicism and was working on a Vatican project.
Shortly after this, the two stood up and went on their way, leaving me in the company of the then-head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, possibly the second toughest position in the Vatican.
Cardinal Ratzinger turned to me with the steely gaze of his grey eyes and asked me, “What made you decide to become a Catholic?”
I explained that I had been adopted at six months old and raised in a loving Anglican family, and yet I had struggled deep beneath the surface to find peace with my identity. I was incessantly searching for answers.
I replied to Cardinal Ratzinger that, in taking on Christ’s mother, Mary, as my spiritual mother, I had found deep healing and resolution around having been abandoned at birth and the mother wound inflicted on my heart.
I then mentioned the Eucharist, the transubstantiated bread which Catholics have believed for two millennia becomes the true Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. As an Anglican, I had been invited to believe whatever I wanted to about so-called Holy Communion. The Catholics, however, were absolute and unchanging in their belief. This is where the conversation took a turn.
Surprisingly, even to me at the time, I began to speak vulnerably on the open street with the future Pope how I had been sexually abused for several years through my late childhood. I discussed the shame, the betrayal, the powerlessness, the ambivalence, and a whole myriad of other crippling effects which had left my heart and my body imprisoned as a result of my past abuse. Father Joseph listened with profound intent. At one point, as he tenderly held my gaze, his eyes teared up. I felt his heart surface and join my own pained heart as I spoke.
I discussed how I was finding healing and restoration of my own tarnished flesh, of my own broken soul and my disfigured humanity through regular consumption of Christ’s Body in the Eucharist.
I recall him nodding and smiling in response to me, and the palpable freedom that began to rise up from within. Prior to this conversation, I had never discussed my past abuse with anybody whilst I was working in Rome. I couldn’t not trust this man. His genuine interest, his listening ear, his compassionate heart, his tangible empathy drew my story out with such ease and confidence in a way I had never experienced before. It was as though a new layer of healing began to envelop me.
Once I had finished, he thanked me graciously, assured me of his prayers for my ongoing healing, and we parted company.
Months later I began to weep, and to weep daily for up to half an hour every day for nearly 18 months. I didn’t understand the tears, but I had learnt to befriend them until suddenly they came to an abrupt end. I later realised that these were a release of the suppressed grief deep within me linked to the many times that my body had been horrendously and inappropriately abused. I also recalled the promise of Cardinal Ratzinger’s prayers for me.
I have since gone on to support many victims and survivors of childhood sexual abuse on their journeys of recovery and have created a state-wide support network in my home nation of Australia.
I accredit the most courageous steps I took to move beyond the myriad of crippling effects of childhood sexual abuse to the fatherly and tender care that Father Joseph demonstrated to me on the Via della Conciliazione that day and the assurance of his pleas to heaven on my behalf through his prayers.
Since the mid-90s, I have shared my abuse story numerous times in public, but no other sharing has ever impacted me and brought such significant inner release as the opportunity I was given to share with the priest whom we today know as the deceased Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. No doubt the media will highlight whatever failings he might have had. But, in my lived experience, tenderness of heart is one quality he possessed in abundance.