Since the death of Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) on 31 December 2022, much has been written in memory of his service and contribution to the Church. While the various aspects of his legacy will be unpacked for years to come, there are not many left who can say they actually studied under Ratzinger when he was a young priest in Regensburg, Germany.

One such man is Fr Joseph Fessio SJ, founder of Ignatius Press—one of the most prominent and popular Catholic publishers in the world.

As well as Ratzinger, Fr Fessio came to know a few of the other ‘big names’ of European Catholic theology in the 20th century, including the Swiss thinker Hans Urs von Balthasar and the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac.

As a young seminarian, Fr Fessio studied at Santa Clara University, the Jesuit institution in Silicon Valley. One day, having been reprimanded by the Provincial for his ‘attempted beard’, Fr Fessio was also offered the chance to continue his studies in Europe, where some of the world’s most eminent theologians were teaching. After some consideration, he agreed to go to France, where he studied under Henri de Lubac, a man credited with the birth of the ressourcement movement, which sought to recover and provide new translations of many great thinkers from the Church’s patristic and medieval eras.

This was in 1969, four years after the Second Vatican Council ended. Henri de Lubac became a mentor to the young seminarian from California, who even helped his teacher to write his letters, since a head wound received in Verdun in 1917, during the First World War, had left de Lubac suffering from ongoing headaches and dizzy spells.

When his studies with de Lubac were complete, Fr Fessio asked what he should study for his doctoral thesis. De Lubac’s response was immediate: ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘Hans Urs von Balthasar, the greatest theologian of our time and perhaps of all time.’

By that time, Joseph Ratzinger was quite well acquainted with Balthasar—the man and his work—so de Lubac encouraged Fr Fessio to go to Regensburg to study with him. As it turned out, de Lubac also knew ‘Fr Ratzinger’ quite well and wrote to him on Fr Fessio’s behalf, convincing him to accept him as a doctoral student.

At first, Fr Fessio didn’t rate Ratzinger as highly as de Lubac and von Balthasar in terms of originality and significance, but it wasn’t long before he changed his mind. ‘Soon I realised, no. He is of their stature,’ Fr Fessio says.

Fr Joseph Fessio SJ, founder of Ignatius Press. (Photo supplied.)

Ratzinger, the man

His time in Regensburg gave Fr Fessio ‘inside knowledge’ when it came to Ratzinger’s personal life and character—knowledge that was hard to square with the portrait that was often painted of Ratzinger in the media in the years following Vatican II. Having played an important role in drafting the council’s documents—especially Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation—Ratzinger went on to serve the Church in other ways, including time as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Increasingly, the media portrayed Ratzinger as rigid and severe—with some even dubbing him ‘God’s Rottweiler’—but Fr Fessio and others knew another man entirely. As well as being a much gentler and more good-humoured person than was often assumed, Fr Fessio says, there was nothing about his teaching style that one would have considered overly ‘dogmatic’.

This came through during the graduate seminars Ratzinger taught, which involved doctoral students meeting with their supervisor around a table for about two hours. While some theologians in Regensburg would effectively deliver a lecture for the whole two hours, Ratzinger was different. ‘He said very little,’ Fr Fessio says. ‘We would come in; someone would make a presentation, and we’d have interaction.’

Even though Fr Fessio’s German was worse than the other students’, Ratzinger would always politely ask him to contribute. ‘Herr Fessio, what do you think about this?’

At the end of the two hours, he would lean back in his chair and look up above us all and make a summary, maybe two, three minutes, in which all the important points we had made were represented but given their proper place in a kind of organic whole.

‘And it was just beautiful,’ Fr Fessio recalls. ‘His was a synthetic mind that could listen like that to all kinds of different points of view and then bring them together.’

When Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005, Fr Fessio says the public perception shifted a little. In fact, for about two weeks after the papal conclave, Fr Fessio became ‘very famous’ as one of the only people in the United States who had spent much time with him. At one point, Fr Fessio found himself on Larry King Live, one of the top talk shows in the country at the time. Larry King said something like, ‘Boy, he’s really changed,’ voicing this shift in perception.

Fr Fessio remembers saying, ‘No, Larry, he hasn’t changed at all. You’ve finally seen who he really is.’

‘People recognised him as this serene, calm, quite introverted, humble, soft-spoken person,’ Fr Fessio says. ‘So, to me, that was a great joy. Not only was he pope, but now the world knew the real Joseph Ratzinger—just wonderfully gentle, warm and a good listener.’

The media were especially taken aback by the publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus caritas est—‘God is love’.

0c883894 07b1 4db5 a3b6 528850d067a6
Then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with Fr Joseph Fessio SJ during Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1999 visit to Ignatius Press. (Photo courtesy of Dorothy Petersen and Eva Muntean.)

Ratzinger, for today

One of the things that struck the young Fr Fessio about Ratzinger, de Lubac and von Balthasar was how wide their interests were. They were outstanding theologians, of course, but they were also knowledgeable in history, art, culture, philosophy and literature.

Fr Fessio saw this firsthand. Every summer, von Balthasar would holiday at a cabin in Lucerne, Switzerland, and often invited de Lubac to come with him. A couple of times, Fr Fessio came along as ‘hired help’, and for three or four weeks at a time he was able to observe these men as they interacted and conversed with each other.

‘It was like watching two universes intersect,’ he says. ‘It was very wonderful.’

He was equally impressed by the breadth of Ratzinger’s knowledge during the many retreats they went on together. Ratzinger’s uniqueness, according to Fr Fessio, lay in his ability to communicate an extraordinary breadth of knowledge to a wide audience.

I was just amazed by his knowledge of the tradition—the Catholic intellectual tradition and cultural tradition. Truly a scholar, but also someone who could speak in a popular way while being very deep and very profound.

Because of this, Fr Fessio believes there is much for us to learn from the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, no matter who we are. ‘There’ll always be riches there to study and mine and uncover,’ he says.

Being deeply influenced by St Augustine, Ratzinger believed in the longing of the human person for God—for ultimate truth, goodness and beauty. ‘The human heart longs for God, longs for truth, longs for the real,’ Fr Fessio explains. ‘It may be submerged, it may be covered over, it may encrusted, but [that desire is] there ... We have one great weapon against secularisation, and that is the human heart.’

There is one work of Ratzinger’s that is particularly dear to Fr Fessio’s heart. Before he published his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy as pope, Ratzinger’s publications were almost always collections of lectures or sermons or various addresses. He had only written one book from start to finish that was intended to be a book: The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000).

Ratzinger always held a deep love for the liturgy, Fr Fessio says. ‘His life was a liturgical life from his birth. He was born on the vigil of Easter, on Holy Saturday, in 1927 … and baptised four hours later. That always meant a lot to him, the symbolism that his natural life and his supernatural life began at the heart of the Church’s liturgy.’

In Fr Fessio’s opinion, there is nothing written about the Mass that can surpass what Ratzinger produced in The Spirit of the Liturgy. There Ratzinger wrote that ‘life only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward God.’ The liturgy of the Church, most especially in the Mass, is the pinnacle of worship, Ratzinger believed; it is a gift that turns us heavenward in a way nothing else can. Precisely because it orients us towards God—and only in God can our heart’s desires be met—the liturgy provides us with a divine foretaste of the truth, goodness and beauty we truly crave.

When Ratzinger celebrated Mass, Fr Fessio says, you were left in no doubt about his deep belief in this. ‘When he celebrated, I’m telling you, you knew you were in a sacred place, at a sacred event.’

Today, when Fr Fessio’s mind is distracted with work and the many responsibilities that come with running Ignatius Press, he calls on Ratzinger to help him enter into the mystery of the Mass more faithfully.

‘You know, I’ve spent half the day on the phone and I’m very distracted. So the first distracted thought I have, I say, “Joseph, help me celebrate the Mass as you would celebrate it.”’

Father Fessio B16 Schuelerkreis break22 min
Fr Joseph Fessio SJ with Pope Benedict XVI. Photo courtesy of Eva Muntean.

Fr Joseph Fessio SJ will be livestreaming an address for the 2023 Benedict Conference on Saturday 28 October. Building its conversations around the themes of truth, goodness and beauty, the Benedict Conference is an opportunity to explore more deeply the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI and how a ‘Church of faith’ can speak to the challenges of today. Tickets available here.