St. Michael’s Professor Recalls Memories of Pope Benedict XVI

As the world reflects on the life and legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, Fr. Daniel Donovan, Professor Emeritus in St. Michael’s Christianity & Culture program, holds memories of encounters with the man both as an academic influence and as a visitor to campus in 1986.

As a graduate student at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute in the early 1960s, studying how the language of priesthood came to be applied to what is known as presbyter or elder in the New Testament, Donovan had the opportunity to meet with Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, then in Rome to participate in the Second Vatican Council.

Over ice cream in an outdoor café, Ratzinger advised Donovan to work on his doctorate in Germany, home to many of the brightest young theologians, men like Walter Kasper, and Johann Baptist Metz, professors who were rising to prominence for their work in post-war Germany.

Cardinal Ratzinger giving a talk at St. Mike's in 1986.
Cardinal Ratzinger visited St. Mike’s in 1986.

Following Ratzinger’s advice, Donovan began his doctorate at the University of Münster, where his courses included a Ratzinger seminar on Dei verbum, the Vatican II document that looked at divine revelation, a work that involved contributions from Ratzinger.

“He was warm, welcoming and kind,” Donovan says of the man who was to become Pope Benedict XVI, recalling a few invitations to lunch at Ratzinger’s home. “He was helpful to people.”

He notes that Ratzinger was very young to be a professor (Ratzinger was 31 when he was appointed a professor in 1958), a reflection both of his intellect and also of the impact of World War II on the academy, which resulted in a gap that helped bring a new school of thought to the foreground. 

As for Ratzinger’s reputation for conservatism, Donovan notes that as a participant in the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger witnessed interpretive extremes on both ends of the spectrum, and thus remained concerned that a desire to be relevant not overshadow centuries of Church teaching. 

His visit included concelebrating Mass at St. Basil’s.

Donovan and Ratzinger met again in 1986, when Ratzinger, by now Cardinal Ratzinger and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican dicastery responsible for ensuring a correct interpretation of Church doctrine, came to Toronto at the invitation of St. Michael’s to deliver  the President’s Lecture, a talk entitled “The Church as an Essential Dimension of Theology.” His visit included concelebrating Mass at St. Basil’s with Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter, George Bernard Cardinal Flahiff, CSB, Fr. James McConica, CSB, then president of St. Michael’s, and other priests in St. Basil’s Church.

Because of Ratzinger’s fame, he delivered his address in the old Varsity Arena, just south of Varsity Arena, to accommodate the crowds, with busloads of people arriving from as far away as Rochester, New York, Donovan recalls. Donovan then chaired a spirited in camera session at St. Michael’s open to members of the Toronto School of Theology, a session participants no doubt remember to this day.