Like so many others, I almost felt unfaithful.
The writings of Pope John Paul II had not only enamored us, they enthralled us. But then, when we began to read Pope Benedict XVI, was this possible?
A prose even more accessible in its clarity, so moving, so easy to read, so mystically deep and illuminating?
How could this be from one of the world’s most erudite professors, a titanic scholar? The clue comes at the conclusion of his first homily as pope: "The Church … must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God."
Pope Benedict XVI would repeat those exact words in the apostolic letter announcing the Year of Faith.
What no one knew was that these would be among Benedict’s last words as pope. And so these two "bookends" provide the interpretive key for appreciating the whole of Benedict’s papal corpus of writings.
Of course, this keynote conviction preceded Pope Benedict’s ascent of the throne of St. Peter. As early as 1968, in his classic Introduction to Christianity, Father Joseph Ratzinger defined hell as "a loneliness which the word ‘love’ can no longer penetrate."
He went on to state in his book The Principles of Catholic Theology, "The root of the human being’s wretchedness is loneliness, is the absence of love — is the fact that my existence is not embraced by a love that makes it necessary. … What man needs is a communion that goes beyond [everything and] reaches deep into the heart of man."
It was as if Pope Benedict always wrote from this wound.
No wonder that Pope Benedict XVI’s inaugural encyclical would be God Is Love. But this theme carries through in his ensuing two encyclicals. Saved in Hope reaches a crescendo with the words, "Only the great certitude of hope that my own life … despite all failures [is] held firm by the indestructible power of Love … gives [life] its meaning and importance." Charity in Truth arrests us with the remark, "One of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation."
And who can contest a conclusion of Jesus of Nazareth: "Man lives on truth and on being loved: on being loved by the truth. He needs God, the God who draws close to him, interprets for him the meaning of life, and thus points him toward the path of life"?
Pope Benedict XVI wrote to the world as a friend.
The Holy Father’s first words in his first encyclical resound in everything he subsequently wrote: "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction."
Here lies the secret to this great genius’ ability to present complex teachings in the most limpid way. Benedict’s apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacrament of Charity, articulates his hermeneutic: "Today there is a need to rediscover that Jesus Christ is not just a private conviction or an abstract idea, but a real Person whose becoming part of human history is capable of renewing the life of every man and woman."
Pope Benedict wrote "personally" in every sense of that word. Accordingly, in his apostolic exhortation The Word of the Lord — where the word "encounter" appears 44 times (and passim in the rest of his writings) — His Holiness asserts: "There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance." Pope Benedict’s writings effect that encounter.
Benedict’s literary use of symbols is both intriguing and provocative. For example, his famous phrase "the dictatorship of relativism" communicates what he considers the central problem of the faith today: an epidemic abdication of reason by which society forfeits values and in the process loses its own identity, degenerating "into open or insidious totalitarianism" ("Address to Principality of Andorra," Dec. 1, 2005).
His image of "the zone of dissimilarity" evokes the experience of "godforsakenness … a remoteness from God, in which [man] no longer reflects him, and so has become dissimilar not only to God, but to himself, to what being human truly is" ("Meeting With Representatives From the World of Culture," Collège des Bernardins, Paris, Sept. 12, 2008).
And the notion "nostalgia for the Infinite" symbolizes how faith still stands a chance in the world because "in man there is an inextinguishable nostalgic aspiration toward the Infinite. None of the answers sought is sufficient; only the God who has made himself finite … is able to meet the questions of our being" (Truth and Tolerance, pp. 142-143).
Whenever I bring up one of these expressions in my preaching, it never fails to pique the congregation’s interest.
As for assessing the lasting impact of the Pontiff’s writings, we may not gain an able gauge until the publication of the collected edition of all Pope Benedict XVI’s homilies.
In their richness and spiritual radiance, they rival those of Pope St. Leo the Great (who died in 461) — which is to say nothing of Pope Benedict’s general audience catecheses on the Psalms, the apostles, the Fathers of the Church, prayer, faith, etc.
Ultimately, what makes the writings of Pope Benedict XVI so exceptional and compelling is their confessional quality. Benedict writes as a bona fide witness. And through a witness, by his "actions, words and way of being, Another makes himself present" (Sacramentum Caritatis, 85).
Benedict’s writing fulfills a principle he enunciated in his youth: "The conversation between people only comes into its own when they are no longer trying to express something, but to express themselves" (Introduction to Christianity). Which explains why Pope Benedict can write such a captivating line in Verbum Domini as this: "In the word of God proclaimed and heard, and in the sacraments, Jesus says today, here and now, to each person: ‘I am yours; I give myself to you’ — so that we can receive and respond, saying in return: ‘I am yours’" (51). It’s a papal document as love letter.
Pope Benedict states twice in his pontificate: "We must learn to penetrate the secret of language, to understand it in its structure and its mode of expression" (Verbum Domini, 12, and "Address to the Representatives of the World of Culture," Collège des Bernardins, Paris, Sept. 12, 2008).
Benedict has mastered this secret himself, and, by it, he led us out of the desert.
"We have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: The present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads toward a goal, if we can be sure of this goal and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey," Benedict writes in Spe Salvi.
We can put our trust in this hope at this particularly challenging moment in the Church’s history precisely because the writings of His Holiness Benedict XVI have enabled us to do so.
Dominican Father Peter John Cameron is the editor in chief of
Magnificat and the editor of the book
Benedictus: Day by Day With Pope Benedict XVI (Magnificat/Ignatius Press, 2006).
Image Credits: Wikipedia