Nine at 90: The mark Pope Benedict has left

In honor of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s 90th birthday on April 16, we look at nine defining themes of his life and ministry.

Christian unity

Pope Benedict has exhibited the importance of Christian unity, an implicit desire of Christ at the Last Supper (see Jn 17:21). As a young priest, he was a theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council, and years later his papacy demonstrated the conciliar shift in the Catholic Church’s relations with other Christians. In his inaugural homily as pope, Benedict said that a primary function of Petrine ministry “consists of guaranteeing the communion with Christ.” And so he aimed at stronger relations with Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant leaders. Sympathetic to alienated Anglicans, in 2009 he provided for the personal ordinariates for Anglicans wishing to enter into full Communion with the Church. And with the Society of St. Pius X, which had broken with Rome following the council, he also initiated talks directed at reconciliation.


In “The Spirit of the Liturgy” (Ignatius Press, $21.95), published in 2000, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sought to foster a greater love and devotion for liturgy. In it, he advocated for, among other things, ad orientem worship — when the priest and people together face the Lord — and the importance of sacred music. As pope, he identified the risk for rupture of the post-Vatican II Church with its preconciliar self. This was a driving force behind the universal permission he granted as pope in 2007 to priests for celebration of the Mass according to the 1962 Missal — or what he styled the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. He saw this as necessary to bring the Church closer “to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church.”


An urgency of a prophet is found in the thought of Pope Benedict, especially where pursuit of truth is concerned. In a homily he delivered to the cardinal-electors shortly before his own 2005 election as pope, he spoke clearly and simply of the modern culture that subjectifies everything. He spoke of this modern attitude of “relativism” as “letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine.’” He went on, “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.” As a shepherd of truth, Benedict steered the Church gently toward our true goal, Jesus Christ.


Pope Benedict has written extensively on the communion of relationships within the Trinity and has shown — relying on Augustinian theology — how the primordial Trinitarian relationships set a pattern for our own human relationships. In a 2009 homily, he noted that “if our fundamental relationship with God is not living, if it is not lived, then none of our other relationships can take their correct form.” In his own life he has shown the importance of human relationships, as well. He constantly strove to remain active in dialogue with others, even with those believed by some to be his “enemies.” Consider his 2005 meeting with Hans Küng. The pope’s guest described the meeting as “a sign of hope” that, despite their differences, they could focus on what they had in common: “we are both Christians, we both serve the same church and, despite all the controversies, we respect one another.”


It seems ironic that the longtime prefect for the Vatican’s doctrine office once said, “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is an encounter, a love story; it is an event.” Cardinal Ratzinger’s defining ministry in service to the safeguarding of the Church’s doctrine, then, should be seen in this light. Pope Benedict emphasized that the ecclesial dimension of faith is necessary. As he told participants at the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid, “We cannot follow Jesus on our own. Anyone who would be tempted to do so ‘on his own’ ... will risk never truly encountering Jesus, or will end up following a counterfeit Jesus.” For Cardinal Ratzinger, one of the primary tasks of the magisterium is to preserve the believer’s unity with the true Christ through the Church.


Among the many things that can be said of Pope Benedict’s resignation in 2013, there should be no lack of emphasis on his witness of humility. He taught much about a true spirit of humility in his last “public” Mass as pope: “The true disciple does not serve himself or the ‘public,’ but his Lord, in simplicity and generosity: ‘And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you’ (Mt 6:4,6,18). Our witness, then, will always be more effective the less we seek our own glory, and we will know that the reward of the righteous is God himself, being united to him, here below, on the journey of faith, and, at the end of life, in the peace and light of coming face to face with Him forever (cf. 1 Cor 13:12).”


’Pope Francis rightfully and appropriately gave credit to his predecessor’s ecological contributions in his encyclical Laudato si' (“On Care for our Common Home”). In fact, many of the themes in the encyclical can be found in several of Pope Benedict’s writings and speeches, earning him the nickname of the “Green Pope.” Pope Benedict insisted, in his 2010 World Day of Peace message, that to be counted among threats to world peace should be considered “the threats arising from the neglect — if not downright misuse — of the earth and the natural goods that God has given us.” Here, he issued a prophetic call toward a deeper theological and moral responsibility of humanity so that we may see the environment “as God’s gift to all people ... especially the poor and future generations.” In the end, the angle of his argument was clear: “If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation.”


Deepening the disciple’s relationship with Christ was at the top of papal agenda items for Pope Benedict. In his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), he wrote, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (No. 1). Written as a private theologian, although while serving as pope, Pope Benedict bequeathed to the Church an opportunity to enhance our encounter with the Lord with his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy. The master biblical scholar and teacher leads readers to an encounter with Christ through an examination of key passages from the Gospels and their application to lives of believers.

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Theological virtues

When Pope Benedict opened the Year of Faith in 2012, he described in Porta Fidei, the apostolic letter introducing the year, the “need to rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ” (No. 2). Pope Benedict had already written encyclicals on charity and hope in the first years of his pontificate. For him, the theological virtues lead us to true discipleship. They are like seeds planted in the human heart by God, which, in a 2013 homily, he said, “must always be nourished by the word of God and by the sacraments so that these Christian virtues may grow and attain full maturity, until they make each one of them a true witness of the Lord.”

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s The Catholic Answer magazine. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.