Pope Benedict XVI’s Greatest Work May Not Be What You Think

COMMENTARY: The corpus of Benedict’s general audiences stand as a witness to his catechetical mastery.

Pope Benedict XVI waves to faithful upon arrival for his weekly general audience on April 6, 2011, at St. Peter's Square. The Holy Father presented his catechesis on St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Pope Benedict XVI waves to faithful upon arrival for his weekly general audience on April 6, 2011, at St. Peter's Square. The Holy Father presented his catechesis on St. Thérèse of Lisieux. (photo: Christophe Simon / AFP via Getty Images)

History will remember Pope Benedict XVI as one of the most brilliant teachers ever to sit on the Chair of Peter. As Archbishop Georg Gänswein recently remarked, Benedict’s greatest tool was the word, both spoken and written. Which raises the question: What was his greatest work?

It depends on the criterion. To make things easier, let’s limit ourselves to his works as Pope Benedict XVI. That not only excludes magnificent articles and books written by Joseph Ratzinger the professor, archbishop and cardinal, but also the “Jesus Trilogy,” a Christological tour de force published while he was pope, but too dense for the average reader and published under the name “Joseph Ratzinger” rather than “Benedict XVI,” at the Pope’s own discretion. 

If we were to judge by sensationalism, the “Regensburg Address” would stand out due to its controversial albeit historically sound claims about Christianity, Islam and the relation between faith and reason. But once again, it takes a patient, discerning mind to understand the arguments, and they continue to escape many well-meaning Catholics. 

Similarly, Light of the World fueled convoluted debates about the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, and, quite honestly, interviews were not the optimal format for revealing Benedict’s genius (nor anyone else’s, for that matter). If we opt for an encyclical, Spe Salvi emerges as the most profound, but it would take another article to explain why.

What if the criteria are simply clarity, comprehensiveness and catholicity? What if we are looking for something accessible to average Catholics? What if we desire something that touches the heart as well as the head? What if it is something with the power to transform the Church?

Look no further than Pope Benedict’s general audiences

The corpus of Benedict XVI’s general audiences stand as a witness to his catechetical mastery. But within this corpus is an extraordinary section that deserves special attention. From March 15, 2006, to April 6, 2011, His Holiness expounded the multi-variegated richness of the history of the Church, but this “history” was anything but a list of facts, names and dates. It was rather an introduction to the lives of saintly men and women who themselves had encountered the living Christ so that we might discover how and from whom we ourselves have received the gift of faith. 

The first installments of Benedict’s catechesis were concerned with the “origins of the Church so as to understand Jesus’ original plan and thereby grasp the essential of the Church that lives on through the changing times.” By reflecting on the Church’s history, “we also understand the reason for our being in the Church and how we must strive to live it at the dawn of a new Christian millennium”; understanding who we are today by rediscovering who we were then. That, indeed, is the essence of Ratzinger’s focus on anamnesis (the memorial aspect) as the key to grasping our Christian identity. 

Suffice it to say that Pope Benedict was convinced that by examining the initial experience of Jesus’ resurrection, his appearances to the apostles, their earliest proclamation of the Lordship of Christ (kerygma), and a careful consideration of how the gift of faith was transmitted and lived out continuously through different periods of history, we rediscover how to live fully as disciples today. 

The main point of these catecheses on the Church’s history from its origins to the 20th century is that we cannot live authentically as Christians individualistically. 

“Even if [Jesus’] preaching is always an appeal for personal conversion, in reality he continually aims to build the People of God whom he came to bring together, purify and save. As a result, therefore, an individualistic interpretation of Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom, specific to liberal theology, is unilateral and without foundation,” Benedict told pilgrims March 15, 2006. He was so compelled to rebut this individualism that, at the same general audience, he offered a concrete example of one of its most recognized proponents: the “liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack,” who wrote, “The Kingdom of God, insofar as it comes in single individuals, is able to enter their soul and is welcomed by them. The Kingdom of God is the dominion of God, certainly, but it is the dominion of the holy God in individual hearts.”

Hence, Benedict’s five-year project of cementing us to men and women across the centuries who continue to support us in building up the people of God precisely as a communion. Figures such as Sts. Basil, Jerome, Augustine, Gertrude the Great, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Bologna and many others. His Holiness concluded these catecheses April 6, 2011, appropriately with the “Little Flower,” St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who “points out to us all that Christian life consists in living to the full the grace of Baptism in the total gift of self to the Love of the Father, in order to live like Christ, in the fire of the Holy Spirit, his same love for all the others.” 

In my 10 years at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, there were many exciting moments, but few compared with the excitement of previewing these texts and preparing summaries for the English-speaking pilgrims. The thorough and rigorous theological training I had received crumbled in the face of these short catechetical addresses, only to be rebuilt and strengthened by Pope Benedict’s emphasis on a personal friendship with Christ through a communal experience of the Church made possible by these men and women. By presenting us with the great Christian figures (not all of whom are canonized), Benedict reminded us that we are no less capable of holiness than they were precisely because they were no less human than we are.

If you must choose to read just one thing of Benedict XVI, read these catecheses. Even if you’ve read everything else he wrote, you won’t have a complete picture of what Benedict meant by the “new springtime of the faith” unless you read them.

Pope Benedict XVI will go down in history as one of the Church’s greatest catechists. May he rest in peace.


Daniel Gallagher teaches Latin at Cornell University. He worked at the Vatican Secretariat of State from 2006 to 2016.