THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: Memories of Pope Benedict XVI
by Deacon Rick Bauer
As a young priest, Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio studied theology under then-Father Joseph Ratzinger, who more than 30 years later would be elected Pope Benedict XVI.
Father Fessio went on to begin San Francisco-based Ignatius Press in 1978 and became the main publisher of Cardinal Ratzinger’s works in the English language. Most recently, Ignatius last week released “Benedict XVI, Servant of Love.” It is a lavishly-illustrated picture book detailing the significant events in the life of Joseph Ratzinger, who became a Catholic priest, bishop, prelate, and pope, and who passed away Dec. 31, 2022. It is a brief but powerful reflection of Ratzinger the man and his thought and includes a section where the reader can pray with the late pope’s most inspiring spiritual meditations and prayers. Father Fessio spoke to The Colorado Catholic Herald about Benedict’s service to the Catholic Church:
Deacon Rick Bauer: Father Fessio, congratulations on this wonderful new book detailing Pope Benedict XVI’s many achievements as well as your insights on his prayer, his heart, and his character. In speaking of the influence of Pope Benedict and his return to a theological exegesis (combining a sense of the church’s history of interpretation along with new vistas being created by contemporary literary and historical-critical methodologies). How influential has this become, if we look out 50 years, particularly in terms of scriptural exegesis?
Father Fessio: Well, if we are allowed those years, we don’t know, but I think that people will come to see that Cardinal Ratzinger came at a very providential time in Scripture scholarship. In the 20th century, the Catholic Church had this biblical renewal, as well as the patristic renewal, some of that coming from the 19th century. The historical-critical method was overemphasized in Europe, and Ratzinger was bright (or may I say brighter than any of them) and at the same time was a man of great personal prayer and piety, and he has a very synthetic mind.
He was able to integrate what Henri de Lubac had brought out about the four senses of Scripture (the literal sense and the three aspects of the spiritual sense: allegorical, moral, and anagogical), along with the useful findings of the historical-critical method. The introduction that Benedict writes in the first volume of the “Jesus of Nazareth” commentaries on St. Luke’s Gospel is a little masterpiece.
I think the historical-critical method has done a great deal of good, but it is exhausted. Benedict’s rule was that historical-critical research should lead you to a greater knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t count as biblical research. De Lubac restored the spiritual sense of Scripture, and Ratzinger — taking that up and putting it together in his book “Jesus of Nazareth” — it is providential. I think that, centuries from now, if we get that much time, they will look back on de Lubac, Balthasar, and Ratzinger as three doctors of the 20th century Church, shining as a light in the face of massive secularization, just as we celebrate St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and then a few days later, Basil’s brother St. Gregory of Nyssa — three great theologian bishops of the 4th century. We look at them as shining lights in the darkness of Arianism. I think we will see de Lubac, Balthasar, and Ratzinger, as shining lights as well.
Deacon Rick Bauer: You had the opportunity to work closely with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Father Henri de Lubac. Father, as you look back, how do you account for such a blessed fellowship of godly scholars and theologians?
Father Fessio: A few things. One, I did my theological studies in France and Germany. Before this, I never had enjoyed any beer or wine, but in France, I learned to drink wine as a part of meals, and in Bavaria, (southern Germany) I learned to drink beer.
Second, I was working with a group of disadvantaged children, and my provincial suggested that I study in Europe. I became a secretary to Father Henri de Lubac in Lyon, France. He was my mentor, and when it came time for me to work on my Ph.D., he encouraged me to write my dissertation on Hans Urs von Balthasar, whom he regarded “the greatest theologian of our time — and perhaps all time.”
He went on to recommend a young German theologian in Regensburg, Father Joseph Ratzinger. Ratzinger already had 50 doctoral students, but Father de Lubac wrote him on my behalf, and I was allowed to enroll in the program. I had this tremendous blessing of knowing, being with, studying under, and writing upon three of the greatest men of the Church and theologians of the 20th century. It also led me to establish Ignatius Press as a way to publish their books in translation, since we did not have any translations into English at that time. That’s been my career as a priest since then.
Deacon Rick Bauer: Author Peter Seewald asked the Holy Father, as reported in the second volume of his biography, “When you stand then before the Almighty, what will you say to Him?” Pope Benedict replied, “I will ask Him to show leniency towards my shabby state.” Reflect please, Father, on what that says about the humility of Pope Benedict, your collaborator and friend. It reminds me of St. Paul’s “shabby” account of his life when he described himself as “chief of sinners.”
Father Fessio: He was a very, very humble person. He could not have been unaware of his intellectual talents; he was aware of them, you know, but he was also aware that these were gifts from God. He was very humble — he listened. To me the icons for this part of Benedict’s character were two: one was the way he listened to his graduate students, listening to the presentations, opening things up for discussions, asking everyone questions. I’m not exactly the wallflower type, but my German was terrible, and he would ask me my views of things, and he would foster discussion among us. At the end, he would summarize everything up in several highly structured German sentences. It was like a symphony as the conductor would bring out all the musical instruments together beautifully.
The second icon of this quality of the Holy Father was the forming of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The catechism is not a list of items; it is an organic presentation where things are structured in such a way that there is a hierarchy of values shown there — it shows the interrelationships between things. I remember when it first came out; I made an entire three-day retreat on just the Table of Contents in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Deacon Rick Bauer: Wow! Thank you so very much for this wonderful time, Father. Thank you for this wonderful book, your partnership with Pope Benedict and the good fruit that it has born, and may God bless and continue your many works.