The Real Benedict XVI

LET GOD’S LIGHT SHINE FORTH: THE SPIRITUAL VISION OF POPE BENEDICT XVI. Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Moynihan (Doubleday, 1745 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10019, 2005), 215 pp. HB $17.95.

The election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI has attracted the interest of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Ratzinger was one of the promising young theologians during the Second Vatican Council. He later became a member of the International Papal Theological Commission, a co-founder of the international theological journal Communio, the archbishop of Munich, and for over two decades a close collaborator of Pope John Paul II as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His election has sparked an interest in his writings and thoughts. Pope Benedict is the author of over twenty books and numerous articles in theological journals. Where does one begin to explore the man and his thoughts? Fortunately, Dr. Robert Moynihan has provided us with a superb brief introduction to the life and spiritual vision of our new Holy Father. He provides readers with short excerpts from the writings of Benedict on a variety of topics. Moynihan is in a unique position to introduce us to the thought of Benedict XVI. He holds a Ph.D. in medieval studies from Yale University and is the founder and editor of Inside the Vatican, a monthly devoted to coverage of the Holy See and the activities of the Holy Father. He has also had the privilege of interviewing Cardinal Ratzinger over twenty times. He is someone who knows the new Pope personally and is aware of how he thinks. This volume is by far the best introduction to the spiritual and theological vision of the Holy Father. The brief excerpts from his writings on about 30 different topics make it easy for the average reader who is not a theologian to grasp the theological vision of the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI.

How does Pope Benedict envision Catholic life as we enter into a new millennium? In a 1993 interview with Moynihan, Ratzinger said:

We are supposed to be the light of the world, and what that means is that we should allow the Lord to be seen through us. We do not wish to be seen ourselves, but wish for the Lord to be seen through us. It seems to me that this is the real meaning of the Gospel when it says “act in such a way that people who see you may see the work of God and praise God.” Not that people may see the Christians but “by means of you, God.” Therefore, the person must not appear, but allow God to be seen through his person.

We see here the great humility of Pope Benedict XVI who regards himself first as a simple and humble servant of the Lord, as a simple priest and pastor of souls, despite all his erudition and scholarly writings. And he is calling Catholics to become the light of the world by following Christ and drawing others to Christ in a humble manner, without pointing to themselves. We have in a nutshell his plan for the evangelization of the world. One detects in these brief words Ratzinger’s vision of the liturgy as well. We are called to celebrate Christ and praise God in the Mass, not to celebrate the community and ourselves. Of course, this is very different from our contemporary cult of the self. Perhaps this is one reason that so many Catholics, separated Christians, and members of other faiths have responded so warmly to our new Holy Father despite the bias of some of the media; they detect in this brilliant Pontiff and theologian a genuine and humble follower of Christ. A very simple but challenging goal is presented: we are to bring Christ to the world and present Christ alone rather than ourselves in his place. Ratzinger’s reservations about Liberation Theology stem not from any disapproval of helping the poor—he is insistent that we must come to the aid of the poor and oppressed—but of a conviction that we must bring them the love of God rather than a merely human political or social program.

The first part of the book is an introduction to the life and person of Benedict XVI. Moynihan draws upon Ratzinger’s various interviews and writings so that Ratzinger is frequently allowed to speak for himself and reflect upon the significance of various events in his life. Moynihan deals with some of the more controversial decisions made by the Cardinal as Prefect of the CDF such as the critique of liberation theology, his criticism of moral relativism, and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ vis-à-vis other great religious figures. At the beginning of the chapter Moynihan asks the question of why the cardinals elected Ratzinger Pope. He notes that Ratzinger strongly emphasized the presence of God and his Truth in the world as an answer to the problem of the absence of God in contemporary society. Hence, from this arises his stress that Christians are called to be the light of the world by bringing Christ and his goodness to others. Ratzinger has also been concerned with clarity; theologians must clearly present the essence of the faith without ambiguity so others may see the splendor of truth and the person of Christ.

The second part of the book consists of three chapters, each dealing with excerpts from Ratzinger’s writings on different issues. The first chapter deals with the world of faith and the difficulty of belief in God, the role of Mary, the doctrine of creation, the importance of the Church, and the relation of Judaism and Christianity. The second chapter asks how the Christian faith is relevant to the world and our questions about family life, social justice, and politics. We see that the Cardinal is a theologian who looks to the future and its challenges; thus he deals with some of the questions posed by contemporary bioethics. The third chapter presents some of the Cardinal’s thoughts on the Christian life as a pilgrimage. He deals with suffering and loneliness, sin and death, faith, hope, and love, and finally eternal life. Here we see the profoundly pastoral dimension to his theology and his ability to relate to contemporary experience. Modern individuals paradoxically experience great loneliness and isolation even in the midst of crowded cities. Ratzinger examines why so many people today lack hope and points them toward God who alone can fulfill the desires of the human heart. Part three of the book includes his first message and homily to the world as Pope. Ratzinger’s favorite theologians are Augustine and Bonaventure so it is no accident that our new Pope will be seen by many as a contemporary Augustine, inviting human hearts wounded by sin and suffering to accept the healing and transformation that the Son of God offers.

This book should dispel several myths about the new Pope created by the media. He is not a “reactionary” prelate opposed to the Second Vatican Council but was a young brilliant theologian who served as an official peritus at the Council and had input into its documents. At the same time, one of the youngest bishops at the Council, Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, was also helping write those same documents. Any notion that Ratzinger was an ambitious prelate who sought higher positions is also refuted by the events of his life. By temperament he was and is a humble intellectual at home in the world of academia and scholarly activities. How then did one of the most brilliant young theologians at the Second Vatican Council become the Bishop of Rome and the Vicar of Christ? He obediently accepted the will of God and the summons of superiors to serve the Church. Pope Paul VI felt that his intellectual and spiritual depth was needed in the hierarchy and summoned him to be the new Archbishop of Munich. Pope John Paul II invited him twice to take a position in the Roman Curia and he agreed with reluctance to accept this new position. He tried to resign as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and return to his theological research, but John Paul insisted that his talents were needed for the good of the Church. Finally, he responded to the Holy Spirit who called him to become the new Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ. This book also reveals Ratzinger to be a highly pastoral and sensitive theologian. Although he has written very scholarly books and articles, he has also written much that is useful for the ordinary Catholic trying to live the faith in a complex world with all sorts of challenges. Despite his immense erudition and scholarship, the Holy Father is a man of remarkable simplicity who is able to relate theology to the struggles of daily life. The thinking of Pope Benedict XVI is always profound and deeply spiritual, rooted in his own life of prayer. He is aware that many people today have difficulty experiencing the presence of God. “Holy Saturday, the day of the burial of God—is it not in an uncanny way our day? Does our century not begin to become one large Holy Saturday of God’s absence?” (p. 88). Does this gentle priest described by his critics as the Grand Inquisitor terrorize people with the fear of God and eternal condemnation? Far from it. “I am not afraid of God because God is good. Naturally, I recognize my weaknesses, my sins and know these can wound the Lord who cares for us deeply” (p. 89). This is not the fear of slaves but the reverence of servants and friends who love their Lord. He balances the reality of sin with the reality of God’s grace and the desire for conversion and the love of God. Despite his ministry which required him to make very serious and difficult decisions for the good of the Church, the Cardinal believes that even God has a sense of humor. “We can see how, in many matters in our lives, God wants to prod us into taking things a bit more lightly, to see the funny side of it, to get down off our pedestal and not forget our sense of fun” (p.92). The real Benedict XVI is not the man portrayed by his critics. The Holy Spirit has called to the Chair of Peter a humble, brilliant, and holy priest who will lead the world gently and wisely to the person of Christ because they will see in him a genuine Christian and spiritual Father on the journey toward God.

Edmund W. Majewski, S.J
St. Peter’s College
Jersey City

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