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Pope Benedict XVI

My Spiritual Father, Benedict the Great

January 5, 2023


The one who has hope lives differently.

—Pope Benedict XVI


Joseph Ratzinger.

I still remember the first time I heard his name. 

It was 2005, and my wife and I were in Mexico. Returning to our room after a day of lolling around on beach chairs under impossibly dry palapas, we were saddened by news that Pope John Paul II had died. 

Though I wasn’t a Catholic at the time (I was a stubborn Lutheran), my wife was. However, having learned more about the papacy through my reading and every-other-Sunday Mass attendance, I was transfixed by the wall-to-wall coverage of the life and legacy of this great servant of God. And the majesty and humility, the wonder and precision of the Catholic funeral Mass (especially for a Pope) is simply unparalleled in the universe. With conclave expected in the coming days, it wasn’t long before the talking heads began wagering who might become pontiff for the one-and-a-quarter billion Catholics around the world. 

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s name was on the shortlist. 

But just who was Joseph Ratzinger?

Joseph Ratzinger began life in a devout Catholic family living in the Bavarian region of Germany. Born on Holy Saturday in 1927, he mused, “To be the first person baptized with the new water was seen as a significant act of Providence.” Having a particular sense of holiness through his early years, he felt the inexorable call to become a priest. This call, however, would be hampered by conscription to the Hitler Youth, the advent of the Second World War, and being drafted to serve (as a fifteen year-old) in an anti-aircraft battery as Hitler’s regime was beginning to crumble. Young Ratzinger would desert Hitler’s army, only to spend months in an Allied POW camp. 

After his release, Ratzinger began his formation as a priest. Looking back to the day of his ordination, he recalled, 

We were more than forty candidates, who, at the solemn call on that radiant summer day, which I remember as the high point in my life, responded “Adsum” (Here I Am). We should not be superstitious; but, at the moment when the elderly archbishop laid his hands on me, a little bird—perhaps a lark—flew up from the high altar in the cathedral and trilled a little joyful song. And I could not but see in this a reassurance from on high, as if I heard the words, “This is good, you are on the right way.”

In the years to come, Joseph Ratzinger would find himself mentored by Henri de Lubac and Romano Guardini. He became a respected academic (successively at universities in Bonn, Münster, Tübingen, and Regensburg), offering brilliant teaching and incisive writing, even serving as a young theological advisor (“peritus”) at the Second Vatican Council. Recognizing the need for a Church that goes out to evangelize the world, he counseled against a self-satisfied clerical insularity. At the same time, Ratzinger cautioned that engagement with the world did not mean capitulation to the era’s relativistic, appetite-driven ethos. Vatican II, Ratzinger argued, was to be understood in light of the Church’s great traditions and scriptural understanding—a “hermeneutic of continuity”—instead of a “hermeneutic of rupture” seeking to leave everything orthodox behind. In 1968, a year of great international cultural tumult, Ratzinger wrote his masterwork Introduction to Christianity, a lucid explication of the Christian faith to an increasingly faithless world. A few years later, in partnership with theologians, mentors, and his friends Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac, Ratzinger launched the revered journal Communio (still in production) to offer the best thinking on the faith. An unbreakable thread through Ratzinger’s career was the devotion to reintroduce the Catholic faithful to their oft-forgotten faith. By reviving the timeless wisdom of Scripture and the spiritual genius of the Church Fathers (a “return to the sources”), Ratzinger and his fellow theologians sought to enflesh a faith that had ossified in the dusty chambers of Neo-Scholasticism. 

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Soon, the formidable and vibrant mind of Ratzinger was in great demand by his Church. He was called to serve as archbishop of Munich and Freising (and named cardinal at the same time) for five years before Pope John Paul II tapped him to become prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger would serve in this role for twenty-five years. 

In 2005 when I first came across his name, he was considered one of the favored “papabile”—a candidate for the papacy.

Indeed, days would pass, conclave would ensue, and with the announcement “Habemus Papum!” this very man—Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—would emerge on the central loggia of Michelangelo’s hulking Roman basilica to the roaring faithful in St. Peter’s Square. 

The world had finally met Pope Benedict XVI. 


But who was Pope Benedict XVI? 

Detractors of the man (or, more broadly, of the Catholic faith) made certain that we all would know their opinion. As prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, we were reminded again and again that his role oversaw the office once known as “The Inquisition,” as if invoking that name would resurrect the darker days of fifteenth-century Spain. As a keeper of the rich truths of the Catholic faith, it was inferred, one had to be mean, crusty, and violently intolerant. “God’s Rottweiler,” he was called. “The German Shepherd,” he was dubbed. He was, in their eyes, “The Inquisitor” himself.

As a non-Catholic with my own share of misgivings about the faith and some of its doctrines, I grew suspicious of this man. But then again, I was researching him myself (not inclined to allow someone to make up my mind for me). And it wasn’t until I read what he had to say that I began to comprehend the true spiritual and intellectual genius of Pope Benedict XVI.

Let me elaborate.

Celebrating the Mass that opened the conclave, the future pope articulated our culture’s dangerous vacuum of belief in a way that I had never heard. Toward the conclusion of his homily, in two brisk but brilliant paragraphs, I was mesmerized.

How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves—flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St. Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error comes true (see Eph. 4:14).

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine,” seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

And so I read more.

Book-length interviews (covering his time from Cardinal/Prefect to Pope Emeritus) with German journalist Peter Seewald revealed anything but the stern reputation modern detractors crafted for him. With striking lucidity and profound insight, the pope answered any and every question the journalist Seewald would throw at him. In the pages of these books (Salt of the Earth, God and the World, Light of the World, and Last Testament), Seewald and the pope discussed everything from theology to politics, culture to history, art to music, hopes for the future and regrets from the past. The candor between the two men was striking. The geniality was palpable. This was the man whom the press dubbed “God’s Rottweiler”? This was the pope whom enemies disparaged as “The Inquisitor”? Juxtaposing the indisputable warmth and charity, the wisdom and faithfulness of Benedict XVI against the vitriol of his critics made me question whether they had ever earnestly engaged his work at all. And there is an interesting epilogue to Peter Seewald’s story. Seewald, an atheist in his initial conversations with Ratzinger, ultimately returned to the Catholic faith in which he was raised and penned a celebrated two volume biography of Benedict XVI. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which Pope John Paul II tasked Cardinal Ratzinger with overseeing and crafting, embodies the dogma of the Church. The Creed, the Sacraments, Moral Theology, and Prayer could not be presented with more clarity and charity. It is not the work of an Inquisitor, but of a devoted father “willing the good of the other.” 

Over several years, the pope’s “September Speeches” across Europe were gripping. To representatives of culture at Paris’ Colléges des Bernardins, he reminded, 

The deepest layer of human thinking and feeling somehow knows that [God] must exist, that at the beginning of all things, there must be not irrationality, but creative Reason—not blind chance, but freedom.

To the German Bundestag, the pope would reason,

Where positivist reason considers itself the only sufficient culture and banishes all other cultural realities to the status of subcultures, it diminishes man, indeed it threatens his humanity. . . . In its self-proclaimed exclusivity, the positivist reason which recognizes nothing beyond mere functionality resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world. And yet we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that even in this artificial world, we are still covertly drawing upon God’s raw materials, which we refashion into our own products. The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.

At London’s Westminster Hall, Benedict XVI observed,

Without the corrective supplied by religion, [political] reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith—the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief—need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

And at Germany’s University of Regensburg (where he once dazzled as a professor), the pope argued that the limitless God of faith is also a logical God of reason.

While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.

His encyclicals were theological chef d’oeuvres. Deus Caritas Est explores the charitable nature of God. Spe Salvi delves into the second theological virtue of Hope. Caritas in Veritate engages modern economics through the principled Catholic lens. His magnum opus, the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, reinforced his Christocentric theology in a hard-edged anthropocentric world. 

Benedict XVI loved the liturgy. “The Church stands or falls with the Liturgy,” he insisted. Inspired and influenced by Fr. Guardini’s classic The Spirit of the Liturgy, the pope wrote his own The Spirit of the Liturgy (while Archbishop in 1978) and continued through his final days to draw from his deep well of insight into the holiness of the Mass. The pope further celebrated the value of the Latin Mass, while revising the translations of the liturgical text (in many languages) to render them more faithful to the original Latin. “The Church is in danger,” the pope explained, “when the primacy of God no longer appears in the liturgy nor consequently in life.”

And the pope was not only devoted to the true and the good but to the beautiful. As a pianist, Benedict XVI called Mozart’s oeuvre, “Music that could only come from heaven; music in which was revealed to us the jubilation of the angels over the beauty of God.” And his affinity for sublime art was embodied in his claim that “art and the Saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith.” 

To be sure, Pope Benedict XVI received blistering criticism over his steadfast defense of enduring doctrines that the world, impatiently, wanted to go away. When asked to respond, he always did so with charity and lucidity about the reason and revelation that informed the teachings of the Catholic faith. “The truth,” he would remind, “is not determined by a majority vote.” When it came to Benedict XVI, too often critics (to borrow from G.K. Chesterton) did not try and find him wanting, but found him difficult and left him untried. 

And in relinquishing his role as Pontifex in 2013, he revealed his love for the faith and his respect for the papacy. “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” This singular act of humility was done so that his successor could execute the vibrant mission of the papacy with strength and vigor. 


And who was Pope Benedict XVI to me?

A spiritual father.

In my arrogance, my ignorance, and my willfulness, this pope helped me. As a scholar and a spiritual director, he walked with and guided me. Gently, but firmly. With love, but with correction. With clarity and without condescension, he explained and illuminated, warmed and comforted. He endured criticism with grace and calumny with fidelity to truth. And he pointed the way (like his Mother Mary)—always to Christ—in a gloom-obsessed world.

Returning to his 2005 homily offered before the conclave that would elect him pope, Joseph Ratzinger articulated the way for the world-weary, the goal for the heavily burdened:

We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.

We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith—only faith—that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.

In 2010, I was welcomed into the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI, my spiritual father, helped me become the Catholic that I am today.

Pope Benedict the Great, requiescat in pace.