Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is “smiling like he used to smile,” says Society of the Divine Word Father Vincent Twomey, a moral theologian who studied under Joseph Ratzinger in the 1970s.
Speaking to the Register Aug. 27, the Irish professor discussed this year’s schülerkreis, a study group of the pope emeritus’ former students who meet annually in Rome. Benedict XVI celebrated Mass for the schülerkreis on Sunday, at the Teutonic College in the Vatican.
In the interview, Father Twomey also recalls the teaching method of his former professor, the uniqueness of his writings and Benedict’s legacy.
On Aug. 24, the pope emeritus celebrated Mass with his former students. How was he? Did he look well?
He looked very well. He is rather nervous about walking, as many older people are ... afraid of falling, and his sight in one eye isn’t very good. But apart from that, he walked in, a bit more slowly than usual, with a [walking] stick and someone at his side. He celebrated Mass with great authority, his voice was clear, and he delivered a wonderful homily without [missing] a note. Afterwards, he met with each one of us for a few minutes and had a talk with each one of us. And he stood for most of that time.
He sat for a while, but then he got up and continued, and we all offered him to sit, but he wanted to stand. So he has energy; and somebody passed the remark, a woman theologian passed the remark: “He’s smiling like he used to smile.” I think that sums it up.
Why was this year’s theme “The Theology of the Cross”?
At the end of each meeting, we vote on a number of topics; we discuss the topics we would like to discuss the coming year. We had three topics last year, and one of them was the theology of the cross. And then we presented them to Benedict, and he decided that that will be the one, and he also had a list of speakers, and he chose his preferred speaker.
So why the theology of the cross? Because that is at the very core of theology and the Christian life: the mystery of the cross.
Nowadays, in the modern world, one could say that we want to save ourselves by getting rid of suffering, and the cross is really the message that says we are saved through suffering. The suffering of God on the cross, the mystery of God’s love for us revealed on the cross and the implications of this for our own lives are quite profound and enormous.
So we are at the very center of theology when we speak of the cross. The cross is about the weakness of God, which is more powerful than the greatest power of man.
Who else was present in your meetings, and who led the discussions?
The discussions were chaired by Father Stephan Horn, accompanied by Cardinal [Kurt] Koch, who is the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Present were his former students, not all of them this year, because a number of them are getting old and sick and all the rest of it.
We were also joined by the new schülerkreis; these are young men and women who have studied Ratzinger for their doctoral or post-doctoral thesis or are studying him. So there were about 52 together for the discussions.
The relator was professor Karl-Heinz Menke of the University of Bonn. He read two very fine papers on the cross and the revelation of the God of love. And each paper, which was quite long, an hour and 10 minutes, was followed by about two hours’ discussion, morning and evening. So about five, six hours in all. It was very intensive and very rewarding.
What do you think is the essence of Benedict’s legacy?
That’s the primacy of God; stressing the primacy of God, also the primacy of truth and love; re-establishing the primacy of God in theology, in society and above all in our lives.
Can you describe Joseph Ratzinger as a teacher in the classroom and in the world?
He was an extraordinary lecturer because he is an original thinker. Every topic he took up he had something new and original to say. That originality was rooted in the primacy of Scripture. In my mind as a theologian, his theology was rooted in Scripture, in revelation, in other words. And he would see the task of a theologian to throw light on the human condition as it is today, in light of revelation, on that condition.
He also has an extraordinary capacity to judge what is happening in the world culturally. So all his theology is a dialogue. A dialogue with the world as it is today or the voices raised in the world today, the voices of philosophers, thinkers, scientists, historians, and he is engaged in a dialogue with them all the time. He tries to articulate the faith in a way that actually makes sense to the modern world. He is also in dialogue with the past. With the whole Tradition of the Church, both East and West. He has an enormous grasp of that Tradition.
Finally, of course, his constant dialogue with God: His theology is born out of a relationship with God, which is deep and personal.
By the way, his whole theology is based on the notion of dialogue as well, which is interesting. For him, God is not just Logos or word, but Dia-logos: one who enters into dialogue with humanity.
So in his lectures, especially in his opening lectures, in whatever topic he took, creation, the Church, Christology, he would begin with a horizon, looking at the situation in the world today, the cultural situation, the philosophical situation, theological situation. This was so popular that students from other disciplines apart from theology would come to his initial lecture.
He could talk about Kafka or about Solzhenitsyn or about Roosevelt, any kind of thinker who would be relevant to the topic. So that meant that his lectures were absolutely stunning, and he had this wonderful capacity to actually sum up the ideas of others in a few short and lapidary statements. So all his lectures had a clarity about them and a depth, which is most unusual.
The other thing about him was his seminars and his colloquiums, which were a wonderful experience, because he had this extraordinary capacity to dialogue with his students. He allowed students to actually express their own ideas and not stifle them in their attempts, as neophytes, to become theologians. He had wonderful patience and wonderful insight into whatever someone was trying to say.
So it was a wonderful experience in the seminar rooms, engaging with really serious material in a way where everyone had some insight to give, where everyone’s ideas were respected, where everyone’s insight was sought for. And this, of course, created a tremendous dynamism in his seminars and his colloquiums.
On the basis of that, can you define the difference between a good and a bad theologian in our times?
(Laughs.) That is very difficult. I would say a good theologian is someone who tries to speak from God’s point of view, to address the real concerns of humanity, which are perennial concerns, but also to be aware of what is happening in the world of science and the world of philosophy, the world of politics, and to be able to address the concerns of people.
I think a bad theologian is someone who is trying to create his own ideas, who his more concerned with his own ideas than with what the truth is. I think a bad theologian is somebody like the Scribes and Pharisees, who get caught up with the letters of the law and ignore the spirit.
In other words, they get confused with the words and ignore the word of God behind them.
What makes Joseph Ratzinger’s writings stand out?
The extraordinary thing about Ratzinger’s writings is that he can appeal to a whole, wide variety of people. His most famous book, called Introduction to Christianity, was not written as a book at all. It was a series of lectures given in the University of Tubingen in 1967, from some notes that he made, which was recorded by one of his assistants who typed it out during the summer holidays, and Ratzinger then included the footnotes and made a few stylistic changes.
So it is not a written book. But in that book, which is classic reading, translated into about 20 or more languages, he is trying to engage with the educated university public from all disciplines: engaging with them about the nature of the faith and the content, the essential content of the faith, summed up in the Creed.
It’s not easy going at times, but there is no obscurification of ideas. On the other hand, when he preaches, as he did last Sunday, and when he writes meditations, they have a clarity and a simplicity that is quite extraordinary. And you don’t get that clarity and simplicity without really wrestling with the issues, doing the research and entering into dialogue with others to clarify your ideas.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.