Pope Benedict XVI’s Christocentric Ecclesiology and the National Eucharistic Revival

Benedict showed us that only a Christocentric Church, nourished by the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, can hope to navigate the current culture and continue into the future.

Pope Benedict XVI offers Mass on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, 2009, in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Pope Benedict XVI offers Mass on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, 2009, in St. Peter’s Basilica. (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

We are now more than halfway through the National Eucharistic Revival called for by the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference. As the Year of Diocesan Revival gave way to the Year of Pastoral Revival, it is worth noting that one of the most preeminent and influential theologians of the last century (or more) returned to the Lord a little over a year ago.

I am of course referring to Pope Benedict XVI. This “humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord’’ has been a constant spiritual guide to me in my own scriptural, theological and sacramental development, and it has been one of the joys of my life to engage with his work. His theological approach can act as a great help to those of us committed to the Eucharistic Revival in the United States.

With that said, I would like to offer a brief examination of the Christocentric ecclesiology of Pope Benedict XVI in the hopes that the late pope’s appreciation for the Real Presence might aid us in our understanding of the Eucharist as the “source and summit of the Christian life.”

According to St. Irenaeus, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive!” If that is true, it begs the question — how does one become “fully alive?” In the view of Benedict, it is possible only if we are first free. That freedom (which allows us to be fully alive) is grounded in a personal encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate God. It is in and through Christ that we become who we are meant to be and can therefore be oriented to God in a true posture of adoration (from the Latin adoratio meaning “mouth to mouth”). Clearly associated with the questions of appropriate orientation and posture is the natural follow-up: where can I experience this personal encounter? 

For Benedict, the most complete experience of encounter with the Lord is in and through the universal Church, founded by Christ himself, as a dispensary of his grace. Participation in the life of the universal Church occurs simultaneously with one’s participation in the local Church alongside men and women of restless hearts, and reaches its climax in the full, active and conscious reception of the Eucharist.

This assimilation into the Divine is sacramentally and spiritually possible in a way similar to how the Council Fathers at Chalcedon (451) elaborate on the dual nature of Christ. In this case, we are brought into the experience of the Divine in the Eucharist without losing our human nature. Benedict writes, “Unlike the impersonal stoic idea of God the Father and the vague paternal idea of the Enlightenment, the Fatherhood of God is the Fatherhood mediated by the Son, and including brotherly union in the Son.” For Benedict, the Incarnation makes possible the Divine “sonship” for all mankind — a brotherhood and sisterhood where all are welcome at Christ’s table.

We can now see clearly that Benedict has a Christocentric view of the Church — but how did he get it? 

Without any question, it is from Ressourcement theology. This 20th-century movement within Catholic theology sought a “return to the sources” of the faith and prioritized Sacred Scripture and the work of the early Church Fathers (sometimes called the Patristic Church). Benedict was not shy about the movement’s influence on him, and in many works, he speaks candidly of his indebtedness to figures like Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar. There is also a clear indebtedness to pre-Ressourcement thinkers like Romano Guardini. Benedict’s attraction to Ressourcement Theology likely began with their work on liturgy and grew from there.

Like these thinkers, Benedict found the Neo-Scholasticism and Neo-Thomism of the time “rigid” and “superficial,” especially with its “topsy-turvy use of Scripture and Tradition.” Furthermore, as the young Benedict progressed in his theological formation, he found there was often a void between scholarship and spirituality, which he did not believe needed to exist. After careful study, Benedict saw that it is the person of Jesus who overcomes any apparent demarcation between scholarship and spirituality. This somewhat paradoxical view was drawn right from de Lubac’s theology on ecclesiology present in his work, Catholicism, where de Lubac writes:

In the likeness of Christ, who is her founder and her head, she is at the same time both the way and the goal; at the same time visible and invisible; in time and in eternity; she is at once the bride and the widow, the sinner and the saint.

Learning to see both realities of the Catholic faith was critical for Benedict’s theological formation, as was his belief in the transformation of history by the Christ-event. As the Augustinian scholar, Father Joseph Lam, recorded in his work on Pope Benedict:

For him (Benedict), history is dynamic because it is permeated by truth which is trans-historical. Hence the historical-critical method is permeated by truth which is because the Spirit of truth is never static. This means that history in itself does not produce meaning. Historical analysis should therefore be complemented by theology.

We can see here a “Blondelian” (Maurice Blondel) philosophical influence, where humanity is “metaphysics in action” in the world and in history. With this understanding of history as dynamic, an exclusive historical-critical exegesis does not do the trick. Instead, Benedict would come to favor a “spiritual Christology” which, in turn, leads to a communion ecclesiology.

This idea was highlighted as a major theme of the Extraordinary Synod called in 1985 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the closing of Vatican II. At this Synod, Pope St. John Paul II (with his successor by his side) issued the document entitled “A Message to the People of God and The Final Report.” 

Additionally, Benedict developed a dialogical reading of the Fathers (beginning with Augustine). This way of encountering the work of the Fathers through a practice of speaking and listening also became part and parcel of Benedict’s prayer life. He writes in his work, Nature and Mission of Theology:

Dialogue first comes into being where there is not only speech but also listening. Moreover, such listening must be the medium of an encounter; this encounter is the condition of an inner contact which leads to mutual comprehension. Reciprocal understanding, finally, deepens and transforms the being of the interlocutors.

This way of studying and praying is not unique in the life of the Church, but I believe Benedict may have helped re-discover it. As Father Lam puts it:

In paying attention to the truth, readers are called on to change their own lives. In dialogue, the inmost being of the other is revealed: the listener’s being is enriched and deepened because (as Augustine himself tells us) ‘it is united with the being of the other and, through it, with the being of the world.’

This all comes down to Benedict’s realization that the present and the past are in a joint effort in search of truth. It should be no surprise then that Benedict chose as his episcopal motto “Cooperatores Veritatis” (co-workers in the Truth). Perhaps such an approach to prayer may be beneficial for U.S. Catholics as we attempt to hear the voice of Jesus from the tabernacle and the monstrance calling us to communion. 

In Pope Benedict’s more formal theological work on ecclesiology, one repeatedly encounters the term “contemporaneity,” and this is worth some attention.

Apparently, during the lead-up to Vatican II, there was a disagreement between the biblical scholar Cardinal Josef Frings and Archbishop Buchberger of Regensburg, over what the central focus and theme of the council should be. Benedict (as a young priest) was serving as a peritus (adviser) to Cardinal Frings.

On one hand, Buchberger favored God as the topic, while Frings favored the Church. Speaking very practically as a pastor (with a view on the Church’s wholeness), Frings simply had no idea how Buchberger’s suggestion could be carried out. Instead, he reiterated what St. Bonaventure tells us:

The Church is intrinsically related to God who reveals himself completely through his only Word whose Spirit fills and inspires the Church.

Therefore the Church is located within Trinitarian communion. This seemingly minor encounter, I believe, played a significant role in how Pope Benedict developed his Christocentric ecclesiology and can even help us better appreciate our understanding of “Church.” Following this encounter, he wrote:

The Church means the presence of Christ, our contemporaneity with him, his contemporaneity with us. It lives from Christ’s dwelling in our hearts; from there he forms the Church for himself. For that reason, the Church’s first word is Christ and not itself, it is sound in the measure that all attention is directed towards him.

This contemporaneity is most visible in the Eucharist which was itself a major pastoral topic for the Council Fathers at Vatican II. Concerned that the word “pastoral” could be interpreted in too many divergent ways, Benedict wrote that, when using it, the Church is “speaking in the language of Scripture, of the Early Church Fathers, and of contemporary man. Technical theological language has its purpose and is indeed necessary, but it does not belong in the kerygma and in our confession of faith.” 

From here the Christocentrism of Benedict’s ecclesiology finds its concreteness in the Eucharist. Here he is drawing clear inspiration from de Lubac. For both men, Christ is wholly present in the Eucharistic assembly. At each Mass, both Jesus and the Church are fully present in the worshiping congregation.

Furthermore, the local church’s participation in the life of the universal Church is a Eucharistic connection over and above any administrative or juridical one. Only in this way can the Church be liberated from a fixation with herself. When the Church operates this way — with Christ as the center of the Church’s life — we will see what the Church Fathers called the “Bonum diffusivum” (the Good spreads itself). 

We should conclude with how Benedict understood the Church in light of the two most popular post-Vatican II titles: “People of God” and “Body of Christ.” There should be no surprise that Benedict uses the “both-and” method here, for neither title alone does the Church true justice.

Following the council, “People of God” came to be hijacked by both political theology and secular sociology, and Benedict saw this as an “insufficient” (and possibly even dangerous) phrase. We see his concerns very clearly in the encyclical Spe Salvi (somewhat reminiscent of his critique of liberation theology decades before) where he writes that the Church cannot lobby for a certain political policy or ideology — it is contrary to her universality to do so. For him, the Church must transcend any social structures the world creates and therefore she cannot remain in the socio-political realm as the title “People of God” is often used to do. 

While “People of God” is insufficient, “Body of Christ” tends to stress the physicality of Christ, which could lead to some form of new pseudo-Adoptionism or pseudo-Arianism. As the Dominican scholar on Benedict's thought, Father Aidan Nichols, puts it:

The unique advantage of a Eucharistic (therefore Christocentric) Ecclesiology was, Benedict felt, that it could combine the strengths of both approaches, and in combining them, help them overcome their weaknesses. Instead, the Church ought to be comprehended as ‘the people of God by virtue of the body of Christ.’

Herein lies the pattern of understanding the method of Pope Benedict which can serve as a blueprint for our approach.

As the National Eucharistic Revival unfolds, let us see (with “Benedictine lenses”) that only a Christocentric Church, nourished by the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, can hope to navigate the current culture and continue into the future. May we maintain hope that the holy men and women of history — not least of all, Pope Benedict XVI — continue to inspire us, guide us and pray for us.


Brendan D. Towell lives in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and teaches in a Catholic school in the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey.