When Pope Benedict XVI was elected to the Chair of St. Peter last April, he probably had more published writings behind him than any other new Pope in history.
For some Catholic colleges and universities, that meant a small library’s worth of intellectual gems became newly important — and eminently rich for the mining.
Not even a year has passed since the last wisp of white smoke rose over Rome, and already courses on the thinking of the Holy Father formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have begun springing up.
And they’re attracting students by the classful.
At Franciscan University in Steubenville and at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., students had to be turned away from the spring-semester courses on the theology of Pope Benedict.
For his class on the Holy Father, Lucas Lamadrid, assistant professor of religious studies and vice president of student affairs at St. Vincent’s, is assigning Introduction to Christianity, first published in German in 1968 when Father Ratzinger was chairman of dogmatic theology at the University of Tübingen. “Here he lays out his full vision of theology,” says Lamadrid, pointing out that the book is based on the Nicene Creed.
Also on tap for Lamadrid’s students: the Pope’s early memoirs, Milestones — so that students see the importance of the Catholic liturgy very early in the life of Joseph Ratzinger,” explains the professor.
“For this Pope the Catholic liturgy, celebrated and participated in by the people and the clergy, is like a lens into the mystery of everything,” adds Lamadrid. “It’s like a window into a cosmic drama being played out for us and in which we participate. Imagine when you go to Mass on Sunday that you’re about to engage in a great adventure in which the ultimate truths of the universe are being unveiled before you.”
Those are the kinds of connections he hopes his students make when they read Feast of Faith (Ignatius, 1986) around the Triduum and Easter.
Let Teachings Go Forth
The process by which Pope Benedict’s theological vision melds Scripture and liturgy is among the major themes Scott Hahn will present to his graduate students at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Add to that an emphasis on the impact of this Pope’s penetrating doctrinal insights, and you’ve got a class in which an empty seat will be hard to come by.
“He’s truly a pontifex maximus, a bridge builder,” says Hahn. “His bridges span the Old Testament and the New, the biblical and the patristic, the medieval and the modern.”
Then, too, Hahn — who wrote the forewords to two of Benedict’s books for Ignatius Press — has already been assigning Cardinal Ratzinger’s books for nearly two decades.
Hahn is particularly impressed with the Holy Father’s reading of Scripture as deeply liturgical. From first chapter of Genesis to last chapter of Revelation, he says, the Bible describes divine creation as a liturgy.
“The fact that creation takes place in six days in order to celebrate the seventh shows us a Sabbath liturgy. Why? Because we’re only fully human in our worship and when we worship together,” explains Hahn, who adds that his course traces this pattern in Ratzinger’s writings.
He also points out that the 73 books of Scripture — the only book that has to be read at Mass — comprise one book for the liturgy.
“For Ratzinger, Scripture is what illuminates the mystery of the sacrament,” says Hahn, “but the sacraments are what actualize the saving truth of Scripture.”
The two form a perfect, fruitful union that nurtures the children of God: Catholics can participate in the mystery of the Mass with greater understanding and appreciation. “Scripture’s home is the liturgy,” notes Hahn. “Pope Benedict is reuniting what God has joined together.”
Hahn is also making sure Benedict’s theology comes alive for future priests at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pa., where last fall he was appointed the inaugural chairman of biblical theology and liturgical proclamation.
Official approval of the chairmanship, and of Hahn’s appointment to it, came from the Pope himself.
Says Hahn: “I want them to experience something they can take out to the parishes and in their homilies — the truth of Scripture when it’s read liturgically and the power of liturgy when it’s understood scripturally.”
At Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., assistant theology professor Edward Sri taught an undergraduate course, The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, as early as the fall 2005 semester.
“His theology is always with a view of evangelizing the culture,” says Sri. “We have young people coming to the school because they want to be part of the New Evangelization. We looked at what Cardinal Ratzinger had said on how we can do that most effectively.”
One text that caught Sri’s eye was the cardinal’s address for the Jubilee of Catechists, titled “The New Evangelization: Building the Civilization of Love.”
Benedict’s critique of how, in a relativistic culture, we’ve lost “the art of living well” and his vision for promoting Christian humanism resonated with students, says Sri. He tells how they concluded for themselves that the New Evangelization isn’t going to take place in mass movements but rather in small Christian communities, where Christians can encourage one another to live out their faith — and their example becomes contagious.
“Our students who want to go out and be part of the New Evangelization really took that to heart,” Sri says. “They want to go out and create the kind of Christian community that Benedict XVI is talking about that is going to change the culture.”
The students were particularly excited about these themes, he says. “They want to go out to transform the culture,” he adds, “and make his vision reality in whatever work the Lord may be calling them to.”
Junior theology major Jake Livingston is living proof of the kind of difference a course in Pope Benedict can make in a Catholic college student’s life.
“I’m constantly thinking of the concepts we read about,” says Livingston. “When I go to Mass, I think of what Cardinal Ratzinger wrote about liturgy. When issues come up in the news that deal with moral relativism and the moral crisis in the world today, it reminds me of the real poison of moral relativism that he tackles in his 38-year-old Introduction to Christianity.”
For Livingston and his classmates, the learning didn’t end when the course did.
“On our own, my roommate and I went out and bought a ton of Cardinal Ratzinger’s books,” he says. “We both just got a little taste of Pope Benedict’s theology from what Dr. Sri had us read for class. My new thing is reading as many Cardinal Ratzinger books as I can.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from