THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: The Benedict Reader - An Introduction to the Writings of Pope Benedict XVI
by Deacon Rick Bauer
Last month, we had the opportunity to interview Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, who was a Ph.D. student of then-Professor Joseph Ratzinger in Germany over 50 years ago.
Father Fessio and Pope Benedict XVI had a successful and fruitful partnership in many ways. Of the 66 books that Pope Benedict wrote throughout his life, most of the English versions were published by Father Fessio’s creation, Ignatius Press. If we were to survey all the writings of this prodigious professor/scholar-pastor/theologian, where would we start?
As one who has read Pope Benedict with some depth, I pass along some personal preferences on a few of his more influential writings. In my experience, there is an “easy Benedict” — works containing insights written for the lay Catholic or new convert to the faith such as “God is Near” and “Jesus of Nazareth” — and then there is “tough Benedict” — things you have to read with an open Bible next to you, and sometimes a dictionary.
In this second group, I would consider “In the Beginning,” and “The Spirit of the Liturgy” as being among the ones that require ample note-taking and reflection. For writings like “Verbum Domini,” I have appreciated the insight of other scholars to help understand what might have been lost in translation or simply difficult to comprehend, for example, “Verbum Domini and the Complementarity of Exegesis and Theology,” ed. Father Scott Carl (Eerdmans, 2015). “Opening Up the Scriptures: Joseph Ratzinger and the Foundations of Biblical Interpretation” (Eerdmans, 2008) is another clarifying commentary on Pope Benedict’s work.
Let’s sample a few morsels of his work. These writings convinced a doubting Protestant minister that the Catholic Church had the intellectual and spiritual horsepower worth careful consideration:
Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 2nd Edition
Although the authorized biography gives a more detailed historical narrative about the development of documents throughout the Vatican II meetings, “Theological Highlights of Vatican II” gives a sense of the theological development of Vatican II and its significance.
I found this work particularly helpful in plumbing the insights that went into “Dei Verbum.” At the council Ratzinger worked on the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (“Dei Verbum”), the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (“Lumen Gentium”), and the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church (“Ad Gentes”). Topics he treats in detail in the book include the debate on the liturgy schema, the early debate on divine revelation, the questions of Mariology and ecumenism, the decree on the bishops’ office in the Church, religious liberty, the Church and the Jews, and the schemas on the missions and on priestly ministry and life.
In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and Fall
A combination of traditional faith and modern historical-critical interpretive methodologies, “In the Beginning” is an embrace of the biblical creation narrative that is both clear and inspiring to both students and clergy. Based on four homilies given by Ratzinger, we see an early theme that would dominate the heart of his biblical exegesis throughout his writings — the foundation of faith, expressed in the Rule of Faith (“Regula Fidea”) and this history of the church’s interpretation of scripture, can be enhanced, not dismissed, by the recent focus on original texts and other critical parameters underscored in Vatican II’s “Dei Verbum.”
Rather than reduce the epic accounts of the world’s creation and fall of humanity into either fundamentalist literalism or scientific rationalism — taking either a hyper-critical defensive toward the literary approaches of the text or a dismissive superiority toward anything that does not resemble a series of scientific observations — Ratzinger creates a “middle way” that is being followed to this day in theological exegesis of the scriptures.
Introduction to Christianity
This exposition of the Apostles Creed, which was more than 30 years old when updated into a second edition by the writer in 2004, highlights the focal point of all Christian theology — the question of God and Christ. Ratzinger provides an introduction to the basic spiritual truths of Christianity, an invigorating embrace of the Scripture, and a broad understanding of the history of theology from the fathers to the present day.
God is Near: The Eucharist, The Heart of Life
This book takes readers on a slow and steady journey through the incarnational thought in Luke’s Gospel — the infancy narratives and other forms of eucharistic symbolism (for example the staff of Joseph as the sprouting staff of Moses). We take it slow because we have an important destination, and the clarity of the rendezvous depends on how much we pay attention to the scriptural scenery Cardinal Ratzinger shows us on our journey.
In speaking to the Prologue of the Gospel of John, Ratzinger again focuses on the ways that the creedal statements about Jesus are cast in biblical words and sentiments. Ratzinger ties John’s “word became flesh”— Greek “sarx” —into the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples at Capernaum in John 6, that his “flesh” (sarx) was given for the life of the world. The point is that, unless one denies the reality of the Incarnation, one faces a logical contradiction in denying the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Chapter 5 of the book, “The Presence of the Lord in the Sacrament,” focuses on the Capernaum dialogues in John 6 and contains some key insights that any Catholic should be able to “own” in a discussion about what (and in who) Catholics believe about the Eucharist. As churches and Christians thin their ranks in light of culture and pressures from the world, we will have an opportunity to explain why we stand so fearlessly upon these truths, and they will matter all the more.
Church Fathers: From Clement of Rome to Augustine
A superb short text to show how the successors to the first generation of Christians kept refining practice and traditions that would be followed in the centuries to come. An excellent starter into Church history for many coming to the subject for the first time.
Jesus of Nazareth
Volumes in this series include “Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives;” “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration;” and Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection.”
“Jesus of Nazareth” may be Benedict’s greatest contribution to the understanding of the Christian Gospels — for the Church and for the world. The Holy Father gives us a measured account of the life of Jesus with a keen eye on addressing some of the questions about the gospels that have confused believers (and many scholars) for this past century. It is a wonderful resource for graduates of parish OCIA programs and a great way to teach new converts to the faith in the mystagogy part of their formation after conversion.
Benedict XVI: A Life (vols. 1 & 2)
Benedict XVI: Last Testament — In His Own Words
Written in collaboration with biographer Peter Seewald, these volumes are long and filled with detail. Memories from childhood, formation by family influence, the dread and anger of a family living under a fascist tyrant, the experience of a new bishop at Vatican II, the growing relationship with Pope John Paul II, and finally Pope Ratzinger’s life and service as pope — all are covered with personal insights from the Holy Father.
I have had an opportunity to read both of these two volumes, and they are worth the reading. Benedict’s Testament (written before his death) is powerful, setting his standard for the manner in which his work and ministry should be judged.
(Deacon Rick Bauer is currently assigned to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Colorado Springs.)