Holy Saturday Fits the Life of Pope Benedict XVI

COMMENTARY: How fitting that the quintessential man of the liturgy should be a child of the Paschal Triduum, the summit of the liturgical year.

Pope Benedict XVI holds the Pascal Candle at the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica April 7, 2012. The Pope Emeritus will turn 95 on Holy Saturday.
Pope Benedict XVI holds the Pascal Candle at the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica April 7, 2012. The Pope Emeritus will turn 95 on Holy Saturday. (photo: National Catholic Register / Vatican Media)

The long Holy Saturday life of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger will mark a final milestone this April 16. Unless he lives until 106, his 95th birthday will be the last time his calendar birthday and his liturgical birthday coincide. 

Ratzinger was born in the early hours of Holy Saturday 1927. The practice at the time was to celebrate the Easter vigil in the morning, so baby Joseph was taken to the church within hours of birth to be baptized in the freshly blessed Easter water. 

“I have always been filled with thanksgiving for having had my life immersed in this way in the Easter mystery, since this could only be a sign of blessing,” Ratzinger wrote in his 1998 memoirs, Milestones. “To be sure, it was not Easter Sunday but Holy Saturday, but, the more I reflect on it, the more this seems to be fitting for the nature of our human life: We are still awaiting Easter; we are still not standing in the full light, but walking toward it in full trust.” 

How fitting that the quintessential man of the liturgy should be a child of the Paschal Triduum, the summit of the liturgical year. There are at least three other ways that Holy Saturday fits the life of Benedict XVI. 


Theological Friendship 

One of the more creative contributions to 20th-century theology was the “theology of Holy Saturday” of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ratzinger’s dear friend and scholarly collaborator. Together they founded the journal Communio, the flagship journal for the authentic interpretation of Vatican II.  

Even as prefect and pope, Ratzinger remained a true theologian, counting the theological greats from all ages as friends he could converse with in his library. Holy Saturday remains a profound day for theology, for the work of atonement and redemption is done. It is a day of silence. What, then, can be said about Jesus in the tomb?  

Theology finds here a certain limit, even as, in Ratzinger’s words, “love penetrates ‘hell.’” That Balthasar would boldly explore that was a mark of his genius and one that generated a certain kinship with Ratzinger, the child of Holy Saturday.  

In 1988, St. John Paul II named the elderly Balthasar a cardinal, but he died two days before the consistory. At the funeral, Cardinal Ratzinger preached about Balthasar in the light of their great theological patron, St. Augustine.  

“What Balthasar wanted may well be encapsulated in a single phrase of St. Augustine: ‘Our entire task in this life, dear brothers, consists in healing the eyes of the heart so they may be able to see God,’” Cardinal Ratzinger said. “That is what mattered to him, healing the eyes of the heart so they would be able to see the essential, the reason and goal of the world and of our lives: God, the living God.” 

The legacy of Balthasar would animate Pope Benedict XVI’s approach in his first volume of Jesus of Nazareth.  

“The great question that will be with us throughout this entire book: What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought? The answer is very simple: God. ... He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love.” 

The God which Jesus brought lies in the tomb on Holy Saturday. The path for us to God embraces even the most forbidding of places, the grave. 


Theological Abandonment and Solitude 

In any account of Benedict’s life a prominent place must be given to conflicts with theologians who had departed from Catholic orthodoxy. As archbishop of Munich and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — even as pope emeritus — Benedict had the burden of correcting errors in order to defend the orthodox faith.  

What is often overlooked is that he had to act against his former colleagues in the rather small world of elite German-speaking theology. There was a real personal cost, in terms of frayed relationships and accusations of betrayal. From a distance it was easy for voices to call for Ratzinger to crack down on this or that, even to delight in it. For Ratzinger himself, it was a difficult duty and a burdensome one. He thus experienced something of the solitude of the Passion, when former associates fell away.  

In his abdication, Pope Emeritus Benedict now lives a deeper solitude, though he still keeps up with the life of the Church and occasionally expresses himself. Yet there is a withdrawal into the solitude, a silence. He has not died, but left an office which usually ends in death. The silence of Holy Saturday, where there is nothing left to do, but only to wait, is now his life and ongoing service to the Church. 


Day of the Bible 

Even as Pope Benedict is the man of the liturgy par excellence, he is also the Church’s most influential biblical theologian. His long career, and especially his preaching and private publishing as pope, had a monumental impact in correcting a generations-long descent of Catholic biblical scholarship into abstruse questions almost entirely irrelevant to the life of faith.  

In insisting that the word of God could only be understood through the eyes of faith, Benedict proved a formidable foe to those who wished to take the sacred Scriptures away from the ordinary faithful and hold them prisoner within the academic guild. He could be scathing in his criticism of the solecisms of the so-called scriptural scholars.  

In commenting on the much-celebrated work by John Meier titled A Marginal Jew, Cardinal Ratzinger archly observed that if Jesus was only a marginal Jew, why study him at all? Who would care? Only if Jesus was God, as the Scriptures clearly attest, does he, and they, have any enduring interest today. 

The Easter vigil of Holy Saturday is the Church’s supreme liturgy, and it is also the most biblical of all the liturgies with the most extensive Liturgy of the Word. That is a Holy Saturday hallmark of Benedict’s Catholic life; the liturgy and the bible are to be understood together. The Scriptures animate the liturgy, and the liturgy gives the Scriptures their fullest and deepest expression. Both word and sacrament find their fulfilment in the praise of God. 

“Jesus Christ, by remaining in death, passed beyond the door of this ultimate solitude to lead us, too, to cross it with him,” preached Benedict XVI before the Shroud of Turin, what he called the “icon of Holy Saturday”: 

“We have all, at some point, felt the frightening sensation of abandonment, and that is what we fear most about death, just as when we were children we were afraid to be alone in the dark and could only be reassured by the presence of a person who loved us. Well, this is exactly what happened on Holy Saturday: The voice of God resounded in the realm of death. … Even in the extreme darkness of the most absolute human loneliness, we may hear a voice that calls us and find a hand that takes ours and leads us out. Human beings live because they are loved and can love; and if love even penetrated the realm of death, then life also even reached there. In the hour of supreme solitude, we shall never be alone.” 

The mystery of life and the mystery of death meet on Holy Saturday. Pope Benedict XVI was born into that mystery and, at 95, now waits to die in it — and then to live anew.