Benedict XVI’s Last Advice: Understand Jesus’ Great Suffering
By centering our hearts on Jesus’ ‘supreme act of love,’ we experience the greatest possible joy throughout each day
Lent is not just one more liturgical season. It is a time of abundant grace for a new conversion, when God is “purifying us by the sacred practice of penance,” as we pray at Mass during Lent.
Most importantly, Lent disciplines us to focus on what Benedict XVI deems to be “the essential idea above all” of the Second Vatican Council that we have to “keep going back to”: “the Paschal Mystery as the center of what it is to be Christian — and therefore of the Christian life, the Christian year.”
If Vatican II is the most consequential pastoral teaching of our time, and Benedict XVI one of two men (the other being St. John Paul II) who offer “authoritative keys” to its “proper interpretation,” as George Weigel puts it, then Benedict’s essentializing is no small matter. It is absolutely important.
It is so important for Benedict that his very last advice for us — surely, for a brilliant person like him, a deliberately chosen one — specifies how we can be centered on the Paschal Mystery, especially during Lent and Easter but also throughout the year, so it can change our daily lives. Truly, he points to this advice as one of his contributions to something grand: “a new beginning” in the Church.
His last advice was recently republished, with much uproar, in his last book, the posthumous What is Christianity? Here we find his essay that plumbs the roots of the sexual abuse crisis. It is an analysis that also exposes what he calls in his Ratzinger Report as “the now dominant mentality” — “the rupture between sexuality and marriage,” the radical source of today’s gender ideology and zeal for abortion.
After asking “What must be done?” Benedict focuses on three practical solutions that are “first and foremost.” First, he mentions faith in a Creator God, and then “the renewal of the faith in the reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.”
And flowing from this, is the very last one: “First and foremost we must swear by him and ask him to teach us all anew to understand the greatness of his suffering, his sacrifice.”
It’s an advice that distills his many insights, much like his innumerable works, according to Scott Hahn, “boiled down to his last words”: Signore, ti amo; Lord, I love you.
To unpack his advice, first note its non-Pelagian tone. The key is to trust and to ask. And we are not to ask first for our action, but for an action of God: that he “teach us.” This is vintage Benedict who, in his Introduction to Christianity, points out that the “basic content” of the Christian life is the primacy of receiving over action: “For his ‘salvation,’ man is meant to rely on receiving.”
Then he goes to the specific action we ask to learn: “to understand the greatness of his suffering, his sacrifice.” This harks back to Jesus’ prediction of his Passion: “he must suffer greatly (Luke 17:50);” and his explanation as the Risen Christ: “the Messiah must suffer (Luke 24:26).”
Benedict is advising us then to be retaught Jesus’ incarnational manner of redeeming that St. John Paul II insists on: It is precisely through suffering that Jesus redeems us. Or as Benedict XVI puts it in Jesus of Nazareth: In Jesus’ Passion, the filth of the world is wiped out in the pain of infinite love.
Great pain is God’s chosen way because, as the Ratzinger-supervised Catechism clarifies: “The heart is converted by looking at him whom we have pierced.” It is by “discovering the greatness of God’s love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin (CCC 1432).”
In his second Lenten message as Pope, he equates Jesus’ Passion to “mad eros.” In a stunning teaching, Benedict says that this “revelation of God’s eros toward man is, in reality, the supreme expression of his agape.” The greatest way God gives himself is by showing his crazy desire for us through his pains!
To guide us on how to put the Paschal Mystery in the center, Benedict displays in Jesus of Nazareth that the Cross of Jesus illumines his whole life: his swaddling clothes, his baptism, the paradoxes of the Beatitudes, the Kingdom of God, and other things difficult to decipher become understandable when Jesus’ Cross is at the center.
Benedict even came up with a fresh and, according to him, the ultimate way of understanding the cryptic second Beatitude: “At the foot of Jesus’ Cross we understand better than anywhere else what it means to say ‘blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’”
Remember that Benedict’s last advice was given in the context of renewing faith in the Eucharist. With the Church, Benedict sees this as the sacrament of love, of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and as “the memorial of his Passion,” a making present and a remembering of Jesus’ sufferings.
And so here our “active participation” is not “mere external activity.” It is about “a greater awareness of the mystery being celebrated and its relation to daily life.”
This point becomes clear in the teaching of saints such as Padre Pio, one of those who understood Christ’s suffering the most: “If you want to assist at Mass with devotion and with fruit, think of the sorrowful Mother at the foot of Calvary.” “In your mind’s eye, transport yourself to Calvary.”
It is crucial to get this right. If the Eucharist is “the culmination” of God’s sanctifying action (CCC 1325) and the center around which our thoughts and hearts turn, then it is of the utmost importance that we contemplate it in the best way so as to “receive” its graces.
As Pope Francis recently stressed in his Letter on the Liturgy: “If we lack astonishment at the fact that the paschal mystery is made present in the concreteness of sacramental signs, we would truly risk being impermeable to the ocean of grace that floods every celebration.”
Still, it is not only during Mass, confession and the other sacraments that Jesus’ suffering, sacrifice and rising are at the center, nor only during Lent and Easter, but also in our everyday work, prayer and struggles. The saints “willingly ceased to gaze upon their own wounds,” preaches Benedict, “and to gaze only upon the wounds of their Lord.”
This “only” is an echo of St. Paul: “Know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).”
From this biblical wisdom flows the conviction of the saints who like Benedict XVI use superlatives to attest to “the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18, 24)” working in the Crucified, God Almighty.
“There is no practice more beneficial for the entire sanctification of the soul,” says St. Bonaventure, “than the frequent meditation of the sufferings of Jesus Christ.” “The best and holiest thing,” St. Paul of the Cross asserts, “is to think of the most holy Passion of our Lord and to pray over it.”
“The passion of Christ completely suffices to fashion our lives,” observes St. Thomas. “For the cross exemplifies every virtue.”
And in the face of any temptation, “the best way to conquer,” teaches St. Francis de Sales, is to perform the contrary virtue and “simply turn with your whole heart toward Jesus Christ crucified, and lovingly kiss his sacred feet.”
And for our pain-avoiding world, as the then-Cardinal Ratzinger described our culture, it is the secret to embrace both Lenten and yearlong Christian self-denial: “All the greatest pains become sweet,” teaches St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi, who suffered much in her life, “when we contemplate Jesus on the cross.”
Benedict also clarifies that in the Risen Jesus with whom we interact and converse every day, Jesus’ Passion, his suffering, is “present,” because the “Resurrection is not an event in itself, separate from death. … Even as the Risen One he bears his wounds.”
At Mass, St. Faustina saw “the Lord Jesus in the midst of his sufferings, as though dying on the cross,” telling her: “You please me most when you meditate on my sorrowful Passion.” With this, Jesus nails down a practice that the Catechism of the Council of Trent similarly asks pastors to be “assiduous” in “stirring”: “Meditate frequently on the sufferings I have undergone for your sake.”
How can this address our sex-dominated culture?
In the preamble of his reply on “what must be done,” Benedict states: “The counterforce against evil, which threatens us and the whole world, can ultimately only consist in our entering into this love” — God’s love for us.
And so based on Benedict XVI’s logic in Deus Caritas Est, we can say: Meditating frequently on the greatness of Jesus’ suffering is “[c]ontact with the visible manifestations of God's love” that “can awaken within us a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved.” By centering our hearts on Jesus’ “supreme act of love,” we experience the greatest possible joy throughout each day — “the sweetest and most compelling motive that can enliven our hearts,” in the words of St. Francis of Sales. And continually filled with this “spiritual joy” of the highest kind, we won’t “go over to sensual pleasures,” in accord with the insight of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Still, this focus on the Risen Christ’s historic suffering is not only a sin-stopper. It is the focus of Jesus’ life — the way by which he “draws all men to himself (cf. John 12:32).” Redeeming us through suffering, teaches the Catechism synthesizing the Fathers, was “the very reason” God became man (607).
As I wrote in my book, Jesus-Centered: Guide to the Happiest Life, inspired by Benedict XVI’s insight on “the essential idea above all” of Vatican II: “If Jesus is the center of our lives, and his life is centered on his Paschal mystery, then Jesus’ Paschal mystery — an event that happened at the geographic center of the world — is the Center of the Center of our lives.”
May Benedict XVI and all the Passion-centered saints ask Jesus for him “to teach us all anew to understand the greatness of his suffering, his sacrifice,” so that this may contribute to “a new beginning” in the Church of the Crucified and Risen Christ.