Much has been written recently in gratitude for the life and legacy of Pope Benedict XVI—otherwise known as Joseph Ratzinger. While others have spoken about his importance in the life of the Church and on the world stage, though, I have been reflecting on how Joseph Ratzinger has shaped my own faith in lasting and powerful ways.
Truthfully, I would be hard pressed to name a contemporary thinker who has been more significant for me. Ever since I returned to Catholicism, his thought and writings have stood as singularly important.
He was a man who integrated the best of modern scholarship, philosophy and theology with the best of the Church’s tradition. Reading Ratzinger, you get the best of both worlds. Engaging with some of the most difficult questions in fresh and insightful ways, he was someone through whom Catholicism just made sense. The clarity and depth of his thought was—and is—astounding.
His remarkable intellect never obscured his deep and humble faith, though, and his love for Christ radiated from all that he did, said and wrote. Defying the labels ascribed to him—liberal, progressive, conservative—he understood the deficiencies and strengths of every ‘wing’ in the Church, bringing everything back to the one person he cared about most: Jesus of Nazareth.
It was through the lens of Christ that he interpreted everything: from the small, passing experiences of life, to the deepest mysteries of the faith.
Three ideas articulated by Ratzinger, however, have had a particularly deep and lasting influence on me personally.
One problem Ratzinger grappled with early on was the rationality of faith in a world that no longer recognises it. Unlike in previous eras, Christian belief is no longer the default belief system in most Western societies, and in many quarters is openly ridiculed as irrational or antithetical to human flourishing.
Ratzinger’s book Introduction to Christianity deals with this topic in a way that is at once illuminating, bracing and consoling—and it changed my approach to faith altogether.
In our current cultural climate, it can be hard to make sense of faith or even to be at peace with it. Too often, we experience faith as a broken thing, riddled with cracks through which doubt, or despair, easily creeps.
What Introduction to Christianity helped me to see, though, is that this is part of how faith is meant to be experienced.
Ratzinger explains that in the early Church, the profession of faith during a baptismal ceremony was called a symbolon. In the ancient world, this term referred to a ‘coming together’—often the coming together of a staff or ring or tablet, things that were broken in half and used as tokens of identity for different parties. If you held one of the halves, you were entitled to something—like hospitality—from the person who held the corresponding half. When they referred to the Creed as a kind of symbolon, then, the early Christians were saying that something was being made whole again.
Ratzinger’s explanation goes deeper, though, and is more personal:
‘A further point follows from what we have said: It also means that every man holds the faith only as a symbolon, a broken, incomplete piece that can attain unity and completeness when it is laid together with the others’ (my emphasis).
This passage hit me hard. I realised that if my faith feels incomplete, if it feels wanting, if it feels insufficient or weak or like it has too much of a rough edge, that’s okay. In a sense, that’s what faith is supposed to feel like.
That’s because faith is not meant to be experienced alone; faith is not the act of a heroic individual. It is meant to be completed and made whole by something else: the faith, tradition and sacraments of the wider Church, which, in turn, only find their completion in Christ.
As someone deeply influenced by St Augustine, Ratzinger was guided most of all by love in his understanding of the human person, God and Jesus Christ. As Augustine once said, ‘My weight is my love. Wherever I go I am drawn by love’ (Confessions, 13.19.10). Love is the thing that defines our humanity most of all.
In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI said that ‘everything has its origin in God’s love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it. Love is God’s greatest gift to humanity, it is his promise and our hope’ (§2).
Christianity is not first and foremost a moral or ethical system. Neither is it a religion like other religions. Christianity stands or falls on its ability to reveal the God who is love, and everything else stems from this.
But Benedict was also known for being a staunch advocate of ‘truth’, defending the very concept from what he famously termed ‘the dictatorship of relativism’—the growing tendency to think that truth is not something knowable or absolute, something each of us has in common and can reach for, but that there can exist things like ‘my truth’ and ‘your truth’.
The concepts of love and truth don’t always seem to sit together comfortably: sometimes it seems like the pursuit of truth requires us to sacrifice love, and other times, we might feel that to pursue love is to sacrifice the truth. Most of us feel this tension at times. But for Benedict, this was a false choice. Love and truth are inseparable, he said, and a society that sacrifices truth also sacrifices love.
‘Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity … it grasps its meaning as gift, acceptance, and communion. Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love [my emphasis]. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word ‘love’ is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite’ (Caritas in Veritatei, §3).
The deepest craving of the human heart is to love and be loved. But if we give up on truth, we give up on something else we hold precious, something that defines our very existence: love itself.
Part of the delight of reading Benedict is that he is so accessible and so refreshingly clear. He avoids getting lost in the weeds of obscure theories—despite being well-versed in them—cherishing instead the childlike simplicity that Jesus calls us to.
In his 2010 interview with Peter Seewald, Light of the World (Ignatius Press), he said: ‘Simplicity is truth—and truth is simple. Our problem is that we no longer see the forest for the trees; that for all our knowledge, we have lost the path to wisdom.’
The simplicity of his faith shone through most brightly for me in Spe Salvi, his encyclical on the meaning of hope, when he shared the story of a young African woman, Josephine Bakhita. As a young girl in the late nineteenth century, she was kidnapped and sold into slavery, experiencing endless cruelty at the hands of her masters. But in discovering Christ, she discovered a ‘master’ like no other, who gave her an unshakeable hope.
He describes the source of her hope like this:
‘I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.’ Through the knowledge of this hope she was ‘redeemed’, no longer a slave, but a free child of God (§3).
Christian hope is born from knowing that we are loved definitively, absolutely, unshakeably, infinitely, and from realising that this love ‘awaits’ us.
Can it really be so simple? Yes, thought Benedict, it can: all we need is to open ourselves to God’s love and to let it change us.
Please join us at St Patrick's Cathedral on the evening of Sunday 29 January, when Archbishop Peter A Comensoli will celebrate a memorial Mass for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The Mass will take place approximately one month after his death, providing an opportunity for the People of God in Melbourne to gather together and to remember and pray for Pope Benedict.
St Patrick's Cathedral
1 Cathedral Place, East Melbourne
Sunday 29 January, 6.30pm
For all queries, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Main image: Pope Benedict XVI. © Mazur/www.thepapalvisit.org.uk.
Melbourne Catholic01 January 2023
Melbourne Catholic07 January 2023