SAN FRANCISCO — Father Joseph Fessio, the Jesuit priest who founded Ignatius Press, has known Pope Benedict XVI since 1972, when the American priest began doctoral studies at the University of Regensburg, where then-Father Joseph Ratzinger had a strong following among graduate students.
Father Ratzinger was just 45 years old when the young American Jesuit from San Francisco arrived at the university, but the German-born academic had already earned a reputation for explaining difficult theological concepts in clear, incisive language.
"He was different, and people came to listen to him. He offered a very personal, meditative reflection. As people now recognize, he was articulate, organized and coherent," recalled Father Fessio, during an interview that shared recollections of Ratzinger’s role as a teacher and offered an appreciation of his gifts as an author.
But Father Ratzinger’s intellectual gifts were even more striking during the graduate seminars, "where there would be five or six of us. In each session, one person would make a presentation, and others would respond," Father Fessio remembered. "Father Ratzinger would listen, and then, in the discussion, he would make sure that others also spoke. My German was not good, and I couldn’t say very much."
During the seminars, Father Ratzinger "would sit back, and then, at the end of the seminar, in two or three sentences, he would summarize all that was said. He pulled the discussion together into an organic whole in a way that was always illuminating."
A Way With Words
Father Fessio soon learned that the same luminous clarity enlivened Father Ratzinger’s published works.
"Back in 1968, when he published the Introduction to Christianity, the prose was already there," said Father Fessio, referring to a work that remains a key textbook for graduate theological studies.
When the Catechism of the Catholic Church was completed in 1992, during the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II, Father Fessio reviewed the text and immediately noticed that it bore signs of Joseph Ratzinger’s distinctive ability to synthesize challenging material. At the time, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was the president of the Catechism’s Preparatory Commission, which worked for six years to complete the project.
"When I first received the Catechism, I spent a whole retreat meditating on the Table of Contents — it was so beautiful. The Catechism wasn’t just a summary or a book of lists, it presented the faith as an organic whole," said Father Fessio.
After his mentor was elected pope, Catholics across the globe had their first taste of Benedict’s literary gifts.
"Love is possible, and we are able to practice it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world — this is the invitation I would like to extend with the present encyclical," wrote Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est, his first encyclical.
"He is like a painter using his palette to produce a portrait," said Father Fessio, noting that the Pope also managed to work his magic in collaborative synodal documents as well as his encyclicals.
"He uses simple images — light and dark. You notice the same thing when you open up The Lord of the Rings and begin reading a paragraph: The majority of words are one syllable, and they convey profound thoughts and emotions."
Thus, when Pope Benedict was enthroned in 2005, "he talked about the pallium, and, when he spoke to the cardinals, he noted that red is for martyrdom."
Same Man, Different Settings
Over the course of more than 40 years, Father Fessio has stayed in touch with his former professor, meeting with other students from Regensburg for annual gatherings and collaborating on a variety of projects. During that time, the priest said, he has witnessed very little change in the man who resigned from the Petrine office on Feb. 28.
"He was always a theologian of the Church," he said. "I saw the same man doing the same thing in different settings. He is a faithful servant, and Blessed John Paul II relied on him a good deal.
"But look how the liturgy changed as soon as Benedict was made pope. Chant was introduced. It means that he was not in favor of the kind of liturgies that Pope John Paul II celebrated, but he accepted it. And when he was pope, he acted differently."
Indeed, while media commentators still dredge up Cardinal Ratzinger’s nickname of "God’s Rottweiler" from his days as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Father Fessio has "never heard him raise his voice. He was always a listener, even at the CDF."
"I wouldn’t call him shy; I would call him reserved. He is not someone who would enjoy a cocktail party," said Father Fessio.
"Yes, he is firm. He has tremendous confidence because he has confidence in Christ. Friendship in Christ: It is the bass note in all his work."
The resulting spiritual serenity sustained him amid the tumultuous decades following the Second Vatican Council, when the German cardinal sparked animosity by insisting that the Council did not constitute a break with the continuity of Catholic Tradition.
Father Fessio recalled a remark the Pope made during a meeting some time after his election.
Another Catholic publisher asked the Holy Father why only Ignatius Press was publishing his works. Father Fessio recalled that the Pope calmly responded, "Because when no one else cared, they published my works.’"
When Father Fessio learned that the Pope would resign during Lent, he quickly grasped the significance of his timing.
"He was born during Holy Week," he said. "And I am confident he chose the time for his resignation because he wanted the next pope as an ‘Easter’ pope, with time for reflection."
Added Father Fessio, "His life begins and ends with the Paschal mystery."
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Ignatius Press