On Saturday 28 October, more than 300 people gathered at Cathedral Hall at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) for the inaugural Benedict Conference, an initiative of the Truth, Goodness and Beauty Project.

Livestreamed and pre-recorded international speakers included Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire Ministries, Prof Iain Benson, Jason Evert and Fr Joseph Fessio SJ, founder of Ignatius Press and former student of Joseph Ratzinger.

The conference was an intellectual feast, a chance to unpack the rich theological and philosophical tradition of the Church as embodied by the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. With conversations built around the themes of truth, goodness and beauty, the talks and discussions covered a range of topics, including the loss of the language of truth in society; the intrinsic goodness of femininity and masculinity, and how to respond to prevalent ideas about the sex and gender distinction; the meaning of beauty as a pathway to God; and how Pope Benedict witnessed to the intelligence, simplicity and beauty of the Catholic faith.

The conference began with a pre-recorded conversation between Prof Tracey Rowland and Bishop Robert Barron, in which Bishop Barron reflected on what Benedict meant to him.

‘He was such a model to me of the Christian life,’ Bishop Barron said. ‘I admired a lot of things intellectual, but just to watch him in action, his gentleness, his simplicity—a simplicity born of a very profound perception of the deepest things in life.’

A highlight of Benedict’s papacy for Bishop Barron was the Wednesday audiences, especially his catechesis on the life and works of the Church Fathers. While he was a scholar in residence in Rome, Barron would go down to hear him whenever he could. ‘All I could think was, here’s one of the Fathers of the Church.’

Prof Rowland said that Benedict was someone who, through his proficiency in many areas of learning, ‘had the whole picture together’. ‘He was like someone in an orchestra who could play almost every instrument in the orchestra,’ she said, ‘and somehow bring it all together.’

Throughout the conversation, they focused especially on Benedict’s contribution to the theology of the liturgy, particularly in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and some misinterpretations of what ‘full, conscious and active participation’ in the liturgy meant.

‘I think that today young people love solemn liturgy precisely because it’s a moment when they can be contemplative,’ Prof Rowland said. ‘We live in a world where many people are addicted to their iPhones and social media, and there’s data and stimulation coming in all the time. But in a solemn liturgy, where there’s silence, there is actually a moment where people can be contemplative and they can experience something of the transcendence of God.’

Iain Benson, a Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, delivered the first major address of the day on the subject of truth. Drawing on the philosopher George Grant, Benson argued that the language of ‘values’ in public discourse and the discourse of the Church is an inherently ‘obscuring language for morality, used when the idea of purpose has been destroyed.’

The Greco-Roman understanding of truth was a unity between two concepts, he said: techne (which means ‘art’ or ‘technique’) and telos (which means ‘end’ or ‘purpose’). In the modern world, we have broken apart the purpose of things from the practice of things, he said, with detrimental effects. One example he cited was the present way of doing politics.

‘You can only analyse a technique if you know its [purpose],’ he said. ‘But in contemporary politics, the technique of politics has come to dominate—and, in fact, to obliterate—its telos. So now, if you want to silence a room full of politicians—a very difficult thing to do—but if you want to try that, just ask them what the purpose of politics is.’

‘Values’ is an abstraction, he said, an ‘infinitely plastic’ word. He argued that we need to return to the language of virtues, of human nature and reason, and of the natural law, because only then will we reconnect with reality and truth.

Jason Evert’s address focused on the goodness of masculinity and femininity, encouraging people to respond to current gender debates with both ‘charity and clarity’.

He spoke about the need for a ‘reverent curiosity’ in listening to people’s stories, not simply dismissing them. There are many labels people attach to themselves in relation to sex and gender, he said, but ‘so often we use these labels as a cover for the deeper story that needs to be heard.’ When we take the time to ask compassionate and curious questions, we may find the deeper needs and longings that are not being addressed, he argued.

In a light-hearted end to the day, Fr Joseph Fessio SJ gave the final address, reflecting on his experience as a student of Joseph Ratzinger. He spoke about how Ratzinger embodied ‘the beauty of holiness’ and how, in the form of his life and writings, he radiated that beauty.

Particularly impressive for Fr Fessio was Ratzinger’s approach to the liturgy. ‘He [was] insistent that the liturgy be done beautifully,’ Fr Fessio said. ‘It has this intrinsic beauty, this objective beauty, that can be marred by our misuse of it. But in the way he celebrated it, it was always something which let the beauty of the Mass radiate.’

The day also featured a number of panel discussions with local speakers, including Anna Krohn, Prof Tracey Rowland, Fr Jerome Santamaria, Dr Andy Mullins, Dr Nigel Zimmermann and many more. Following each talk, they took time to unpack some of the content and discuss its relevance to Melbourne’s local context.