is so well known for his lively talks, books and tapes that his formal work can
be easily overlooked: Much of his time, if not most, is spent in
doctorate-level teaching and research. He’s a noted professor of theology and
Scripture at Franciscian University of Steubenville,
Ohio, and, last year, was named chair of biblical theology and liturgical
proclamation at Saint Vincent Seminary in
On a recent teaching layover in
You’ve been presenting an intensive course, “The Theology of Pope Benedict
XVI,” at the
I have been soaking in his work for a long time and the one thing I would say that characterizes his work now, as much as it did when I first discovered it in my pre-Catholic years (20 years ago), is that he has a unitive vision. I wasn’t surprised to see this unifying approach that we’re witnessing with this new cycle of catechesis uniting Jesus with the Church.
What is significant about this unification?
Where so many other scholars
specialize, and from this specialization comes a fragmentation and division,
Pope Benedict has an integrated method that’s very rare. For instance, he
combines exegesis and dogma, whereas in most of the academy, exegesis is on one
side, dogma is on the other and the
You notice this principle working in his biblical theology, too, as he insists on combining the Old Testament with the New. It’s a remarkable synthesis that draws from the very best scholarship over all times — biblical, patristic, medieval and modern.
Here we have a breadth of vision that, in so many ways, builds upon what we became familiar with in John Paul II. But you can understand why a man like Wojtyla, becoming Pope, would have looked to a man like Cardinal Ratzinger and recruited him to help in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — not because of a hard-line stance but because of a truly in-depth, Catholic vision that he has that is biblical and doctrinal, the old and the new.
What then, is the future of theology in the wake of Pope Benedict’s contributions?
That’s a question I’ve been exploring all semester, but I would say that to understand what he’s doing now in this papacy, you not only have to consider what he has been doing as a scholar and as a prefect at the Curia for the last quarter of a century to 40 years. You have to step back and recognize that he was caught up in something that was truly remarkable: the confluence and convergence of three renewal movements that began right in the first half of the 20th century, before his own academic career got started.
These were the liturgical renewal, the patristic renewal and then there was also this great biblical renewal that was really brought to full flowering in 1943 with Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (On the Promotion of Biblical Studies).
As these movements were going on together and mutually reinforcing, Pope Benedict himself had worked through them all; he was one of the few figures who didn’t politicize his findings and kept the connection. Plus his earlier work was to show how the Scriptures were read liturgically and how the Scriptures were filled with liturgy — and so you have all these elements not only preceding him but running throughout all of his preparation, research and writing.
In a rare English-language interview in the 1990s, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke specifically about the Eucharistic center of the liturgy (on which he’s touching in this new series), as a moment in which the whole cosmos, all of creation, praises God. How is Benedict XVI’s understanding of the cosmic structure, so to speak, of the liturgy related to his understanding of the universality of the Church?
The real genius of this Pope consists not simply of the man’s brilliance, though he has that, but it’s more profound than one man’s intelligence: It is the almost childlike recognition that it is in the liturgy that Our Lord holds all of this together; that it isn’t really up to the academy. The Church itself is the mystery of Christ. The Incarnation is not simply a past event that occurred in the first century; it is an ongoing reality. So the mystery is something that happened in the first century but — through the sacraments and especially in the liturgy — Christ’s concrete presence is here in our midst and we are his people.
The liturgy is not just the place where the Church comes together locally. What Cardinal Ratzinger showed, and now Pope Benedict has been teaching, is that the universality of the liturgy unites not just various races and various continents and various peoples. It unites heaven and earth.
You see this in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. It’s also spelled out very clearly in A New Song for the Lord. It even goes back to some of his earliest writings, such as The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, and to his most scholarly work, Eschatology.
He shows that, when we worship, we are singing the same songs, offering the same sacrifice and prayers, as the angels and saints. So he has constant recourse to the book of Revelation, where you read about the heavenly liturgy in the New Jerusalem, where the angels and saints are singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the “Amen.” There’s incense described and there’s a book and an altar and seven chalices where Christ is robed as a heavenly high priest.
The same songs, the same prayers,
the same liturgical actions are given to St. John in the vision to show us that
we don’t have to die in order to go to heaven. All we need to do is go to
For Pope Benedict XVI it is also Eucharistic, here and now. There’s an “already” aspect as well as the “not yet.” So the marriage supper of the Lamb is the Eucharistic liturgy that is truly universal — not simply in the sense of international but also of cosmic universality.