Pope Francis: Benedict XVI's Life of Prayer is 'Theology on One's Knees'

Holy Father pens preface to new book of Benedict XVI's collected writings on the priesthood to mark Pope Emeritus' 65th anniversary since his priestly ordination.

Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI outside of the Holy Doors at St. Peter's Basilica to begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy on December 8, 2015, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI outside of the Holy Doors at St. Peter's Basilica to begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy on December 8, 2015, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

Benedict XVI’s life of prayer since his resignation is the greatest testimony to doing "theology on one’s knees", Pope Francis has written in the preface to a new book on the Pope Emeritus.

In the preface of the book that comprises texts written by Benedict XVI on the priesthood to mark the 65th anniversary of Joseph Ratzinger’s ordination June 28th, the Pope begins by writing that “every time I have read the works of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, it becomes increasingly clear that he has done and is doing ‘theology on his knees’.

“On his knees because, even before being a great theologian and teacher of the faith, we see a man who truly believes, who truly prays, you see he is a man who embodies holiness, a man of peace, a man of God.”

Pope Francis has referred to "kneeling theology" before, after Cardinal Walter Kasper delivered his controversial keynote lecture at an extraordinary consistory in February 2014 that began the two-year Synod on the Family. "Eminence, if I embarrass you – but my idea was that this is what we call “doing theology on one's knees”, the Pope said before thanking the cardinal.  

In the preface, published in full in today's La Repubblica newspaper, the Holy Father says that Benedict’s resignation provided the “greatest lesson”, and describes the Pope Emeritus’ life as “constantly immersed in God.”

He says Benedict is a man who “embodies an exemplary heart” of a priest, a “deep rootedness in God” without which organizational abilities, supposed intellectual superiority, “all money and power are useless.”

He describes the Pope Emeritus as also embodying “the constant relationship with the Lord Jesus without which nothing is true anymore, everything becomes routine, the priests almost salaried, the bishops bureaucrats, and the Church is not the Church of Christ, but a product of ours, an NGO that in the end is superfluous.”

Francis says that by reading this book in which his own preface appears, “it becomes clear” that Benedict, “in sixty-five years of priesthood which we celebrate today“, is an “exemplary witness” to the work of a priest.

Turning to Benedict’s resignation, he recalled the Pope Emeritus’ own words at his Angelus address on Feb. 24, 2013, when he said his decision to dedicate himself to prayer and mediation “does not mean abandoning the Church; indeed, if God asks me this it is precisely so that I may continue to serve her with the same dedication and the same love with which I have tried to do so until now.”

From this point of view, he says the Pope Emeritus has “given us in the most obvious way one of his greatest lessons of ‘theology on one’s knees’.” This is perhaps because “above all he has withdrawn to the Mater Ecclesiae monastery where he continues to witness even more brightly the ‘decisive factor’ that innermost core of priestly ministry that deacons, priests and bishops must never forget: namely, that the first and most important service isn’t management of the ‘current business’, but to pray for others, without interruption, body and soul, just like the Pope Emeritus does today: constantly immersed in God, with the heart always turned to Him, as a lover who thinks of the beloved at all times in everything he does.”

He therefore shows us what “true prayer” is, Francis continues, and that it isn’t something one does in one’s “free time.” Prayer isn’t simply “good practice” in order to give a "little peace to one’s conscience” or to obtain from God “what we believe we need at that moment.”

“No, prayer, as this book says and as Benedict XVI witnesses, is the decisive factor: it is an intercession that the Church and the world — and especially in this time of real epochal change — need more than ever, such as bread [but] more than bread.”

He adds that prayer is “the key that opens the heart of God,” the only way to “bring God back into our world”, and says that “Benedict does not forget that prayer is the first task of the bishop.”

“And so prayer really goes hand in hand with the awareness that, without prayer, soon the world will not only lose its orientation but also the true source of life,” Francis writes. Quoting Benedict in the book, he adds: "Because without the bond with God, we are like satellites that have lost their orbit and plunge wildly into the void, not only disrupting ourselves but also threatening others.”

Francis concludes by exhorting priests to “meditate deeply” on the pages of this book so that they can bring Christ to others, the “fresh and living water” which they “thirst for more than anything else, that only He can give, and that no substitute could ever replace; that we lead them to full and true happiness when nothing satisfies them, that we lead them to realize that most intimate dream that no power can ever promise and fulfill!”