The Spirituality of Benedict XVI

COMMENTARY: In his contemplation and solitude before the Lord these last several years, earthly affairs gave way to the liturgical mysteries of heaven.

Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the shrine in the cathedral, Aug. 18, 2005 in Cologne, on the first day of his groundbreaking four-day visit to his native Germany, during the Catholic World Youth Day festival.
Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the shrine in the cathedral, Aug. 18, 2005 in Cologne, on the first day of his groundbreaking four-day visit to his native Germany, during the Catholic World Youth Day festival. (photo: Patrick Hertzog / AFP/Getty)
“In Jesus … man becomes able to approach God in the depth and intimacy of the relationship of a child to his father.” (Pope Benedict XVI, School of Prayer: The Saints Show Us How to Pray)

Pope Emeritus Benedict lived by a new freedom and hope for the future that he found in the access that Christ alone gives to the heart of God. In his contemplation and solitude before the Lord, earthly affairs gave way to the liturgical mysteries of heaven. Here, he found an intensity of being that politics attempt to thwart, even in the Church. No cog in the wheel of social progress, he long rejected a life driven by ambition. Instead, he strove to be obedient to the God of Jesus Christ.

As foreshadowed in the Jewish Passover, Joseph Ratzinger allowed himself to be led out of the slavery of the daily grind and into the freedom of God’s will, the liberty of love. He found the freedom to pray because, under sacramental signs, the Eternal Son of the Father established in him a new relationship with God, that of a child to his father. 

Enlisted against his will in the German military, Ratzinger was questioned by his sergeant about what he would do after Germany “won” the world war. The young soldier said he wanted to be a priest and was roundly mocked. There would be no need for priests in the new Germany because no one would need salvation, he was told. It dawned on the future pope at that very moment that Germany would not only lose the war but that his country would need him as a priest even more than ever.

His prayers have been marked with the conviction that only God gives a future and freedom for his people.

Every day, he ministered Christian hope unseen by the world through hallowed symbols and signs, priestly gestures and words, sacred space and time — not in the struggle of spirit against the limits of matter, not in grasping for unchanging spiritual heights above the merely material, but in gratitude for an undeserved gift, in humble acceptance of the Crucified Savior. 

When the Word becomes flesh, the sacred invades the profane to find rest in human weakness. Not limited to the most powerful, the Almighty God has chosen to manifest himself in what is least. Ratzinger lived in reverent humility because he cleaved to a humble God. 

Such an incarnate spirituality is at odds with voices that claim to be spiritual but not religious or to believe in Christ but not the Church. If our situation were simply that of individualized spirits, that would be one thing. But any approach that ignores the actualities of life is simply bad religion. In a dying world with forces of self-interest attempting to nudge into submission all that is most wonderful, even within the womb, within the heart, there yet remains a deep-down goodness that searches for a future. 

True religion sees humanity as embodied together in the great drama of good and evil being played out in history where everyone is implicated in each one’s struggle, and it proposes not an escape, but a reason for hope in the face of all that threatens our thriving. 

Pope Benedict understood our plight as thwarted by sin and death but still inherently ordered toward meaningful communion. Indeed, in the image and likeness of the Trinity, he was certain that human society is doomed unless the saving God enters into our relationships and infuses them with new life. On this note, the pope emeritus’ life witnessed that the Savior enters our human reality to redeem all of it: even its politics, technology and art. The God of Jesus Christ stands on the side of humanity. With him, the best is not behind but in front of us.

Though he believed God is at work in the profane, Pope Benedict’s liturgical spirituality was grounded nonetheless in the sacred. With reverent familiarity, he long pondered the words of the Word and found a vantage point. If others are carried away by news cycles and ideological brinksmanship, he rested the weight of his existence on the truth and there took his stand. He prayerfully studied the Bible and tradition as a compass to navigate through the chaos of life. He discerned the passage that our Crucified God first pioneered through humanity’s fears and sorrows and, keeping his eyes fixed on him, walks in the pathway of the Church. For this pilgrimage of faith, his spirituality anticipated a life that this passing world can no longer hold back. 

This liturgical spirituality contemplates the Eternal Word. If Benedict XVI baptized his thoughts in the Bible, making its language the language of his heart, he also attended to the Word who speaks through more than words. God’s self-communication in space and time is not bound to the merely historical but opens a deeper level of existence: the sacramental. 

Christians worship in a wilderness of meaning-filled silences and rich solitudes of solidarity. As through symbols and rites, Christ gives himself in the deepest substance of the heart. Pope Benedict taught about the new subjectivity that a Christian knows: We live no longer our own life but the life of Christ in us — a life that is from and for the Father’s love and through the faith of the Virgin Mother, from and for humanity. 

In the Eucharistic face of Christ, the love God has for us makes all things new — for the Father has blessed us in his Son with every spiritual blessing. In Christ’s gaze of love, even after two millennia of Christianity, Pope Benedict knew that we have only scratched the surface of what has been given us. His liturgical contemplation would have us plumb new depths in the heart of Christ: 

“After the tearing of the Temple curtain and the opening up of the heart of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified, do we still need sacred space, sacred time, mediating symbols? Yes, we do need them, precisely so that, through the ‘image,’ through the sign, we learn to see the openness of heaven. We need them to give us the capacity to know the mystery of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified” (Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 61).

The Petrine Office informed his spiritual life. The papal ministry is a spiritual fatherhood in a world experiencing a severe crisis of fatherhood. Fatherhood ought to radiate what man cannot by his own nature: the love of God the Father. 

Spiritual fatherhood in the Church lifts this vocation onto a supernatural plane — fathers in the order of grace are frail, imperfect signs of the perfect love of the Heavenly Father. Such love is expressed in cruciform shadow and wordless cry. One only needs to consider Peter’s inability to cope with the cross to see the scandal of human frailty before the mystery of divine paternity. The mystery is that the Risen Lord charges him, nonetheless, with “feed my sheep.” Under the breath of the Spirit, he does.

Benedict, like so many other priests who dare to live in this mystery, discovered not only his frailty but even more the hidden power of God at work in the world. The only way to walk in such a storm is in extreme humility fixed on Christ, and the Holy Father suffered all the betrayals and humiliations that this means. Thus, as chief shepherd of the Church, he ministered with a graciousness extended even to those who publicly disagreed with him. Not a man who grasped for control or manipulated things for his pleasure, he continued to live surrendered to God’s will through the ongoing renewal of his mind.

Shy by nature, his shepherd’s heart compelled him to boldly proclaim the Good News. Who could ever forget World Youth Day in Cologne, when, with raised arms, he moved his smiling fingers as if the shouts of jubilation from the international gathering were the Holy Spirit striking chords on a piano? Yet this lover of Mozart did not hide the challenge of the Gospel. In his teachings, he reminded us of basic truths that he himself has lived: the need to discipline the desires away from what is selfish and order them toward what is noble, the need to learn how to “offer it up,” the need to read the Bible with devotion of heart, the need to be reverent when we approach the altar.

In his last years in retired seclusion, he approached Christ’s presence in human history — and for each soul entrusted to his prayer — as a transformative mystery. He prayed to unleash this transformation in the trials we face today, and he knew that our hope does not disappoint. He prayed, believing that the Crucified Lord constantly transforms our violence into love and our death into life, just as he transforms bread into his Body. 

By faith, the retired pope held fast to a new principle of unity in humanity and, thus, a safeguard of hope and freedom for the human heart. That principle is Jesus of Nazareth, the Risen Lord. Perhaps the former Holy Father’s spiritual testimony is that even as his own humanity could no longer keep up with the demands of the modern papacy, even retired into solitude and hiddenness, he lived as if his greatest work in the Church had only just begun, for love is in the heart of the Church, and this love flows more by devotion of heart than the mere exercise of ecclesial office. Benedict XVI’s love for Christ’s Body answered the crisis of fatherhood we face: In his silent prayer, the Father’s voice calls to us anew.