As a stunned Catholic world watched an enfeebled Pope Benedict XVI announce his decision to vacate the throne of St. Peter, a Kochiite had an overwhelming feeling of having seen it coming since that bright September morning in Rome last year when he met his long-time friend at a private audience.
“I was stunned to see that the Pope had become so much older between 2012, when I met him last, and now”, said the well-known cardiologist George Thayil, recalling his long friendship with the Pope, first as Joseph Ratzinger, a young priest in Munich, whose theology lectures at Munich University were always crowded.
The young priest went on to become the Archbishop of Munich and Freising; and, later, Cardinal Ratzinger, the gatekeeper to a new wave of Catholic conservatism and the dogma-riding spiritual guide to Pope John Paul II.
“I never met a priest so dedicated to the cause of Catholicism as Father Ratzinger”, Dr. Thayil said recalling the years between 1974 and 1981 when as a student of medicine at the University of Munich on a scholarship from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Germany, he met the young priest Ratzinger and forged a warm and lasting relationship with him.
At that time, Father Ratzinger was already a theologian of formidable repute at the nearby University of Regensburg. “Medicine and theology had nothing in common, but I was attracted by his personality”, said Dr. Thayil about how they met.
“And, the first question Fr. Ratzinger asked me was whether I was from Kerala. The young theologian already had immense regard for Kerala’s Catholic population, which he learnt was steeped in traditional practices like daily recital of the rosary.”
He also remembered how the Fr. Ratzinger loved long conversations at leisurely dinners after which the young student of medicine washed the plates and cutlery and the future Pope wiped them dry as his sister Maria oversaw the operations at their home near Munich.
He said he had written to the pontiff as soon as he was elected the head of the Catholic Church in April 2005. He had asked in his letter whether the Pope still remembered a young student of medicine from India in Munich way back in 1974.
“The reply was prompt and it overwhelmed me. He asked me to meet him in Rome as soon as I could. We were granted a private audience in September 2006. As soon as he saw me, he came to me, took my hands and held it for a long while. The Pope’s first question to me was whether I had learnt of his sister Maria’s death in 1991.”