Part 1 Faith – Week 1

Discovering Ratzinger

Ever since news of his death was announced on 31 December 2022, Catholic commentators around the globe have rightly called attention to the fact that Joseph Ratzinger/ Benedict XVI was one of the most brilliant theological minds of the 20th century. Others have gone even further, ranking him among the very best theologians in the entire history of Christianity and calling for him to be declared a Doctor of the Church.

None of this is surprising. Ratzinger was the last of the theological experts of the Council, and probably the most famous – if not the most erudite – of that group of theologians comprising Lubac, Congar, Danielou, Balthasar, and Rahner that because of their influence on the Council changed the course of Catholic history forever. In the 60-odd years of his theological production, he wrote more than 100 books and 1300 articles and essays, in addition to the 3 encyclicals, 4 apostolic exhortations, and countless homilies, addresses, and audiences he delivered as Pope. And the themes he covered in these writings was equally vast: everything from the traditional dogmatic fields of fundamental theology, Christology, Ecclesiology, and Christian anthropology, to spiritual, moral, and pastoral theology, theology of religions, political theology, catechesis, and the historical and cultural importance of the faith in an increasingly secular world.

Unlike the notoriously obscure vocabulary of Rahner, or the dense and technical academic style of Lubac or Balthasar, however, Ratzinger’s writings were characterized by a disarming clarity that could even be mistaken for simplicity. He possessed the extraordinary gift of being able to both grasp and then articulate with astounding precision what the core problems or difficulties involved in an issue were, and there are countless stories of how he would listen silently – and without taking any notes – to the reports of multiple theologians in his meetings at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or of several bishops in their ad limina visits to the Vatican, and then give a brilliant summary of the entire argument and the core issues upon which it hinged. As Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote recently, “Benedict was simply the most intelligent person I’ve ever met – not only in his understanding but also in his articulation” (First Things, 4 January 2023).

In all of this, what also stood out was Ratzinger’s eminently pastoral style. He was a priest, a bishop, and a Pope before being a professional theologian, and his theology thus had a distinct ‘teaching, explanatory’ flavour to it. What he wanted to do above all with his writings was to explain the faith anew for the modern man, and to respond to the upheavals that the implementation of the Council, liberation theology, and then relativism and post-modernism had occasioned in the faith of the ordinary Christian. As one commentator put it, he was no disconnected theological writer living in the ivory tower of abstract speculation, but one who wrote with the Bible in the one hand and the newspaper in the other, and who set himself the task of trying to truly understand, empathize with, and engage the questioning faith of today’s believer.

Reading Ratzinger should thus at the top of every Catholic’s list in the new year. And this is also why I am beginning this weekly post. My own love affair with Ratzinger began more than 15 years ago, when as a newly arrived seminarian in Rome who neither understood nor spoke Italian I stumbled upon his Introduction to Christianity in our university library. I was soon hooked… and the rest was history. In the years that followed I eagerly devoured everything of his that I could find and eventually ended up writing my doctoral thesis on his theology. Ratzinger became my intellectual mentor, my spiritual guide, and the closest and dearest friend of my soul.

What I propose to do now is simply to let you repeat that initial experience of discovering Ratzinger that changed my life. My goal is to methodically go through some of his most important works, choose those texts that stand out for their beauty and depth of content, and thus allow you to hear Ratzinger explain the faith in his own words every week.

My hope and prayer is that your encounter with this brilliant and yet humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord will bring you as much joy, light, and food for prayer and reflection as it has for me.

Fr Sameer Advani, LC

Question for reflection:

What did I learn today about Pope Benedict that I will take with me throughout this week?

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