“Father Benedict”: Five Must-Reads

“If we look closely, in every moment, we are at a crossroads: do we want to follow the self, or God?”

—Pope Benedict XVI, 13 February 2013

As the two-year anniversary of Benedict XVI’s resignation from the Chair of St. Peter approaches, a decision that ultimately gave the church and the world the papacy of Francis, the impact of Joseph Ratzinger—Benedict XVI’s canon of thought to both theology and culture is only beginning to dawn. Dr. J. Steven Brown, the editor of the essential compendium A Reason Open To God, which features dozens of Benedict’s greatest papal texts, remarked that the present Pope Emeritus is one “who only comes along in history every so often.”

While Benedict has remained hidden from the public eye, as he promised in February 2013, we have seen and heard him every so often. Most recently, he admitted to journalist Jorg Bremer his desire to be called “Father Benedict” after his resignation. He also penned an address to Urbaniana University entitled “On Catholic Faith, Missions, and other Religions” in October 2014. For the most part, though, his essential task at this stage is prayer—and to let his body of work speak for itself.

That body of work Benedict has left behind, which spans almost sixty years, is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. Embarking on the journey of discovery evokes the quote filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli shared in his book Jesus—A Spiritual Diary: “A priest friend who is dear to me warned that when you begin to involve yourself in godly matters, it is terribly difficult to return to mundane trivialities.” Just as John Henry Cardinal Newman—whom Benedict beatified in 2010—spent a substantial amount of his study solely to the Church Fathers—one could spend years devoting time, study and prayer to the works of Joseph Ratzinger.

While many have found a spiritual hero in Pope Francis delighting in his style, much of his freedom in pursuing new ways of saying and doing that faithful and non-believers have found so refreshing is due in large part to the foundation of faith set by Joseph Ratzinger over a lifetime of service to the Church, and particularly during his eight-year pontificate. “May you have a strong foundation,” Bob Dylan sings in “Forever Young,” “When the winds of changes shift.” Perhaps it is no coincidence that Benedict’s final General Audience catechesis was devoted to the Creed—the very essence of what Catholics believe—which Francis picked up and completed as his very first series of teachings.

Here are five texts written over many decades in which Joseph Ratzinger gave us his greatest gift: his wisdom and encouragement for us to embark on our own journey to seek God’s face.

The Jesus of Nazareth Trilogy (2007, 2011, 2012)

“Keeping one’s gaze firmly fixed upon God in order to receive from him the criterion of right action and the capacity for it—that is what matters.”

Begun two years before his election and completed a year before his resignation (see each preface for their fascinating backstories), Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth series is not only insightful scholarship as one would expect from the former theologian-professor, but all three are accessible to the average reader—perhaps most pertinent for one seeking inspiration in re-igniting her spiritual flame. From moving accounts such as a rumination on “what did Jesus bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world?” in the first volume to a close reading of the exchange between Pilate and Jesus in Part Two, the familiar is taken to deeper, newer perspectives.

Part of Pope Benedict’s brilliance was approaching the well-trodden steps of the Gospels with insights not before considered (e.g. the sequence on Matthew 21 as a parable for our very own time). Throughout his life, Joseph Ratzinger was acutely aware of the “signs of the times” and the general fading of the faith amid the world around him. A challenge, as he leaves us a legacy of these books, may be to return to the fundamentals of Christian faith as espoused in this trilogy. Perhaps there are some who in abandoning their faith have abandoned in reality a misconstrued faith as a result of poor teaching, misunderstanding, or faith as a wrist-slapping book of rules, rather than the faith of the God of Jesus Christ. Here in Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict invites readers to a mature reading of the figure and message of Christ.

James Martin, SJ, on the day Benedict resigned, suggested this series would be his lasting legacy: “the pope brought to bear decades of scholarship and prayer to the most important question that a Christian can ask: Who is Jesus?  This is the pope’s primary job–to introduce people to Jesus–and Pope Benedict did that exceedingly well.”

Introduction to Christianity (1968)

“Belief is the conversion in which man discovers that he is following an illusion if he devotes himself only to the tangible.”

Adapted from a series of lectures, so influential did Introduction to Christianity become that the then-cardinal archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, pored over it during his free time. That it appeared in book form in 1968, during the height of the student revolutions, the sexual revolution, the Vietnam War, and a general growing distrust of institutional authority, further enhanced the urgency of its content.

Its urgency has not been lost in the ensuing decades. In the preface written for the second edition in 2000, Cardinal Ratzinger noted its relevance was needed for today’s world as he detected the new generation—what would become known as the millennial generation—were seeking other forms of the divine just as his students and others were doing in 1968. He wrote, “The dismal and destructive ecstasy of drugs, of hammering rhythms, noise, and drunkenness is confronted with a bright ecstasy of light, of joyful encounter in God’s sunshine.”

Introduction to Christianity is not a textbook, though it should be required reading in theology classes serious about forming its students to be people of faith for the church and the world. Like Jesus of Nazareth, the language is simple, understandable, and deceptively straightforward. Before long, the reader is enraptured. Long gone are yearnings for pop drivel; such are the workings of godly matters.

The God of Jesus Christ(1976)

 “True love is an event of dying, a stepping aside before the other and on behalf of the other.”

Ignatius Press’ remarkable handling of Joseph Ratzinger’s English editions have allowed us to access pieces he wrote that otherwise may be forgotten. The God of Jesus Christ is a compilation of addresses culled from Advent and Lenten retreats and gatherings from the early 1970s in Bavaria. At just over one hundred pages, the book is structured by meditations on each Person of the Trinity. In it, they reveal the future pontiff’s concern for the cultural pull to replace God with relative, temporary replacements.

Imagine yourself in attendance at a retreat hearing such lines as: “It is not God who is dead; what is dead (at least to a large extent) is the precondition in man that makes it possible for God to live in the world.” Or: “One who is serene from the bottom of his heart, one who has suffered without losing joy, is not far from the God of the Gospel, from the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of eternal joy.”

Faith and the Future (1970)

“In no way is the adventure of human life to be mastered. It is the very toughness of this adventure that makes it beautiful.”

A sort of cultural follow-up to Introduction to Christianity, Faith and the Future is the book version of a series of radio addresses then-Professor Ratzinger delivered in 1969 and was published by Ignatius Press in its current form in 2009. It is also Ratzinger unleashed. A particular passage came to light by the Vatican Insider the week after Benedict’s resignation in 2013:

“From today’s crisis will emerge a church that has lost a great deal. It will no longer have use of the structures it built in its years of prosperity. The reduction in the number of faithful will lead to it losing an important part of its social privileges. It will become small and will have to start pretty much all over again. It will be a more spiritual church, and will not claim a political mandate flirting with the Right one minute and the Left the next. It will be poor and will become the Church of the destitute.”

This language of a smaller, spiritual church—which Ratzinger later echoed in Salt of the Earth in 1996—is also reminiscent of the Pope Francis desire, from World Youth Day in Brazil: “I want the Church to go out to the street! I want us to defend ourselves against everything that is worldliness, that is installation, that is comfortableness, that is clericalism, that is being shut-in on ourselves.”

While Faith and the Future paints a terrifyingly realistic portrayal of a world without faith, Ratzinger deftly proposes the alternative, that the only way to combat the dictatorship of relativism is by trust in the Most High: “Christianity, before being a moral value or ethical value, is the experience of love, of welcoming the person of Jesus.”

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (2005)

“We must reverse the axiom of the Enlightenment and say: Even one who does not succeed in finding the way of accepting God, should, nevertheless, seek to live and to direct his life ‘veluti si Deus daretur,’ as if God existed.”

The future saint was dying. On the night of April 1, 2005 at St. Peter’s Square, the faithful would begin gathering for what would become one of the largest and most public farewells modern man has seen. While John Paul II was quietly embarking on his final earthly journey that would end on April 2, one of his closest confidants, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, delivered an address in Subiaco, Italy that would later appear in book form entitled Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures.

While such attention to spiritual decline may alienate some, it was not Joseph Ratzinger’s ultimate message (i.e. surprising many with titling his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est—God Is Love), but he knew he was the one who had to say it. Much of what is contained in this piece would later surface just a few weeks later in his homily prior to the 2005 conclave, the homily in which the famous “dictatorship of relativism” phrase was coined. It would also define some of his greatest addresses as pope, particularly his trilogy of cultural addresses: Paris 2008, Westminster 2010, Berlin 2011.

There are other great works which easily could be added to this list: The Spirit of the Liturgy, Truth and Tolerance, his addresses during his 2008 visit to the United States, particularly his vital address to Catholic educators, his conversations with Peter Seewald, long before the advent of the popular papal interview genre, his catecheses that drew huge Wednesday crowds hungry for spiritual insight, the collection of ecological issues compiled into the book The Garden of God, and many others you will discover for yourself.

Pope Francis has certainly drawn new life and energy particularly out of those who never much listened to a pope before, but much of that admiration comes from giving Benedict short shrift. The billion-plus Catholics and all people of goodwill could truly direct our lives veluti si Deus daretur, as Joseph Ratzinger often suggested. Not by pitting one pope against another, but to see them both pointing to the Imago Dei. Pulling together at this stage of our history rather than splintering into political arguing may bring us closer to the light—closer to the Face of God—than we dare think possible.

“[T]here [is an] invitation not to see the world that surrounds us solely as raw material with which we can do something, but to try to discover in it ‘the Creator’s handwriting’, the creative reason and the love from which the world was born and of which the universe speaks to us, if we pay attention, if our inner senses awaken and acquire perception of the deepest dimensions of reality.”

—Benedict XVI, 22 December 2005

image: giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Avatar photo


James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (November 2016, Sophia Institute Press).

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage