'He has got thinner but he looks healthier,' says member of Ratzinger Student Circle

Benedict XVI has emerged briefly from his prayerful retreat to celebrate Mass with a group of his former doctoral students.

His homily in German was aired in part by Vatican Radio and published as partial excerpts by the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, marking the first time the retired pope’s remarks to a private gathering were made public. The Vatican television had aired the historic meeting on March 23 between Pope Benedict and his successor, Pope Francis, and portions of their conversations.

Although the retired pope did not join the former students for the annual talks, as he had for nearly four decades, he met with them on Sunday to celebrate Mass at a chapel inside the Vatican City State’s governing office.

The 86-year-old delivered his homily off-the-cuff without notes and looked and sounded well, according to one participant. Benedict XVI spent about an hour greeting and speaking individually to each of the more than 50 participants.

One of the former students, Divine Word Fr Vincent Twomey, described the retired pope as “in good form, and evidently he was glad to see us, and we were glad to see him.”

“He has got thinner but he looks healthier, I would think. But he is an old man, there is no doubt about that, even the way that he walked around the altar with his stick, you could see it. It is a normal age-related phenomenon. He used to trot around the place with great alacrity. He uses the stick now, not because he needs it, but to make sure that he doesn’t fall,” Fr Twomey told Catholic News Service.

The former pope reflected on the day’s reading from Chapter 14 of the Gospel of St Luke in which Jesus says the proper place to sit when invited to a banquet is at “the lowest place” because “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted”.

Jesus presented himself as a person who serves and is not meant to be served, Pope Benedict said. Any apostle of Christ, he said, will be “the last in the world’s opinion”, but nonetheless will be in the right place, which is next to Christ.

Whoever “perhaps is pushed forward and comes to the front must know he is in danger; he must look even harder for the Lord, measure himself against him, measure himself against the responsibility he has for others, he must become someone who serves”, Pope Benedict said.

Only the person who is humbly seated on the floor at the foot of others is blessed, he said.

The humbling mystery of finding exaltation in humiliation can be seen with Christ’s death on the Cross, he said. Sacrificing oneself and giving oneself to others raises people up to “the heights of God’s love,” he said.

The Ratzinger Schülerkreis, or Ratzinger Student Circle, is a group of the retired pope’s former students that has met since 1978 to discuss topics in theology and the life of the church. The group met this year at Castel Gandolfo from August 29 to September 2.

Benedict XVI had chosen the featured speaker, French historian Rémi Brague, and the topic of discussion, “The Question of God Against the Background of Secularisation.”

“We did miss the pope’s own contribution to the discussion,” Fr Twomey told CNS. “That has been there every other year, when he always gave it an extra dimension by asking the right questions and making the right comments. He brought the discussion to another level, really – bringing it forward with more interesting conclusions.”

The priest said his former teacher “always has something original to say no matter what the subject is and we missed that – because he has thought about all these questions thoroughly. But nobody referred to it. We were just aware that things have changed.”

However, he said there were no plans to wind down the Schülerkreis.

“We are already planning next year’s gathering, and certainly the younger generation’s Schülerkreis is expanding, and that is one of the questions we have to address – what if it gets too big. That is a major question that they are dealing with now.”

Since stepping down on February 28, Benedict XVI has led a very quiet life, far from the public eye. He attended the dedication of a statue in the Vatican Gardens with Pope Francis on July 5.

Living in a monastery in the Vatican Gardens, along with his long-serving secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, and four consecrated lay women, the retired pope occasionally welcomes visitors, especially friends, former students and small groups accompanying former students. The meetings are private and rarely reported in the news.

Pope Francis said recently that the unusual situation of having a pope and a retired pope both living at the Vatican is working out very well, although he said he has tried to encourage Benedict XVI to feel freer to invite people over, to go in and out and to join him for events.

He said having the retired pope nearby to consult with or ask questions of “is like having a grandfather at home – a very wise grandfather”.