Recent conversations with two friends have made me realize just how misunderstood Benedict XVI is. Both praised the late Pontiff for setting the example of “the Benedict Option” in his decision to resign, which upon further inquiry I understood as an explicit reference to Rod Dreher’s 2017 book by the same name. Only while speaking with the second friend did I realize that he was under the impression that the “Benedict” appearing in the title was Benedict XVI, not Saint Benedict of Nursia!
The irony is that despite his name, his withdrawal from public life, and his statements about the importance of small Christian communities, Pope Benedict would not have proposed the “Benedict option” as the only way forward for the Church – be it particular or universal – in the third millennium. Benedict was rather an ardent promoter of what I would call the “Pauline option” as evident in a magnificent series of catecheses examining the life and teaching of the Apostle from Tarsus spanning from July 2008 to February 2009.
On several occasions, Benedict XVI characterized Saul’s encounter with the Risen One on the road to Damascus as paradigmatic for all Christians. The Apostle, Benedict taught, reminds us that, at its core, conversion is ultimately not “the result of a development of thought or reflection, but the fruit of divine intervention, an unforeseeable, divine grace” (General Audience, 25 October 2006). “What counts,” Benedict continued, “is to place Jesus Christ at the center of our lives, so that our identity is marked essentially by this encounter, by communion with Christ and with his Word” (ibid.).
Inextricably bound to this personal encounter with the Risen Christ is the call to proclaim Him. “From the first moment,” Paul “understood that this is a reality that did not concern only the Jews or a certain group of men, but one that had a universal value and concerned everyone” (ibid.).
Pope Benedict XVI taught that to carry out this mission, Christians must realize that their very identity is characterized by a “restraint from seeking oneself by oneself but instead receiving oneself from Christ and giving oneself with Christ, thereby participating personally in the life of Christ himself to the point of identifying with him and sharing both his death and his life” (General Audience, 8 November 2006). This, Benedict emphasized, is the essence of faith, not a disembodied confession of abstract articles.
This marvelous series of catecheses in which Benedict methodically examined the life of Saint Paul, his theology, and his importance for the Church coincided with the “Pauline Year,” a Jubilee-like event commemorating the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of the Apostle to the Gentiles. Working in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State at the time, I remember both the excitement of the initiative and the disappointment in the participation. Benedict XVI inaugurated the year by praying before and entering the “Pauline Door” at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside-the-Walls, together with the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Cardinal Archpriest of the Basilica, and representatives of several other churches and ecclesial communities. It was a moving and unforgettable ecumenical moment. But the distance of the Basilica from the average tour route and the tepidness with which Benedict’s Wednesday catecheses and other events were received turned it into a lost opportunity, but not one that cannot be regained by (re)reading these wonderful reflections and embracing Paul’s missionary spirit: a spirit Cardinal Bergoglio himself wished to promote on the threshold of his election to the Chair of Peter.
In 2013, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino revealed the outline of a speech Cardinal Jorge Martio Bergoglio delivered to his brother Cardinals before they began closed-door deliberations and balloting. The Archbishop of Buenos Aires made two main points: (1) the Church must come out of herself and go to the peripheries: not only geographic, but “existential”, and (2) every effort must be made to break out of a “self-referent” Church that separates her from the world, keeping “Jesus Christ within herself” and not “allowing Him to go out to the world.”
With the release of Archbishop Georg Gänswein’s memoirs (Nothing but the Truth: My Life Beside Pope Benedict XVI), a lot of attention will unfortunately be directed toward the differences between Benedict XVI and Francis. But I am sure the Archbishop would agree that, judging from the day-to-day priorities and catechetical projects entrusted to the papal staff on which I served, the two popes shared a common vision for the “Pauline option.” Having had the courage to shoulder the increasing burdens of the papacy, I would also say that no one understands better than they the “central significance of the cross” when we make this option. The cross, Benedict XVI urged, was so central to the Apostle’s vision and mission that he “even went so far as to describe our suffering as ‘the suffering of Christ’ in us (2 Cor 1: 5), so that we might ‘always [carry] in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies (2 Cor 4: 10).”
The decision to resign and dedicate himself to a quasi-monastic life of routine was Benedict XVI’s personal choice. I won’t deny that, in doing so, he set a great example of prayer, sacrifice, and discipline for all. But by no means was he suggesting that it was time for Christians (pace Alasdair MacIntyre, Rod Dreher, et al.) to make a strategic retreat from the world. Indeed, Ratzinger’s choice of the name “Benedict” was as much for “political” reasons (in the widest, best sense of that word) as it as for eremitic.
Not only is there nothing wrong with the monastic life, it is absolutely essential for a healthy, vibrant Church. But for the vast majority of Christians, the life, mission, and spirituality of Saint Paul is the model that leads the Church to encounter the Risen One, embrace the Cross, and go to the peripheries so that we may share our experience of “being loved by Jesus Christ” and our desire “to communicate this love to others” (General Audience, 25 October 2006).