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Surprised by the Gospel

On Pope Benedict XVI's spiritual legacy.

José H. Gomez is archbishop of Los Angeles, home to the largest Catholic community in the United States. He is the former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In his first homily as pope, Benedict XVI told us: “Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. … There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.” Benedict is right. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel. Nothing is more beautiful than to meet Jesus. Our Christian life, the life of faith, always begins with an invitation. It begins in friendship, in witness—one heart speaking to another heart about the love that they have found in Jesus.

Pope Benedict understood that the modern world is moving away from God, that faith is fading from the hearts of many people, that our society is growing cold and intolerant toward religion. But he also knew that God is not finished with His creation, not done building His kingdom on earth. Jesus is still calling, still knocking at the door of every human heart. Benedict reminded us that the Church’s mission is Christ’s mission: to seek and to save the lost. It’s not just about popes and bishops, priests, and religious. All of us share in this mission, every one of us who has been baptized. Each of us is called, each in our own way and in the circumstances of our own lives, to speak to others of our love for Jesus and our friendship with Him. When we meet the living God in Jesus Christ and follow him, our lives change.

To be surprised by the Gospel is to discover the truth about where we come from, and what we are living for. When we allow the love of Christ to fill our hearts, the gate of Heaven stands open before us. We see with certainty that we walk in the light of His divine presence, in the company of angels and saints. The little things in our everyday lives become like a ladder that can lead us to Heaven.

I am confident that Pope Benedict will be remembered among the great figures in the history of the Church—a great teacher and biblical theologian and one of the most brilliant minds in the West. But as Pope Benedict looks on the face of God and listens to His voice, he knows his legacy is not one of great words and important books. His legacy is the countless souls who will continue to find friendship with Jesus through his gentle invitation to be surprised by the Gospel.

This article is excerpted from a symposium on the life and legacy of Joseph Ratzinger that appears in the Lent 2023 issue of The Lamp.