Pope Benedict XVI. Creative Commons CC0

The Irreducibility of a Man

The humility of the beginning and the ending of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate indicate the true content of his steps. Theologian Javier Prades looks back with us on these past eight years.
Davide Perillo

The beginning and the end: certainly, they mirror each other at first sight. It is difficult not to see in the humility with which he resigned from the papacy the same feature with which Benedict XVI presented himself to the people of God on April 19th, eight years ago: “After the great Pope John Paul II, the Cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.” But now that the work has ended, and it is time to take stock, one understands that there is something more in the bond that unites these two gestures. “There is a testimony that embraces all the rest,” says Javier Prades, the 52-year-old theologian and Rector of San Dámaso University in Madrid. “In the way Cardinal Ratzinger accepted the appointment there was already, in embryo, the heart of what would come later: ‘The first initiative is God’s, not ours.’ Benedict XVI showed this to everyone with great clarity. He is a free man. This has been seen clearly in these years.”

What were the defining features of this pontificate?
Right away, just after the election, in the Pro eligendo Pontifice Mass, Ratzinger communicated a profound understanding of the mystery of Christian life and the needs of the Church. In his first homily as Pope, he said he did not place his hope in programs, but in the will to respect the initiative of the Mystery. He was aware that true need is at the root of the relationship with the Mystery of God. It is a refrain repeated over time. It became decisive, especially because of the sensitivity with which he developed the great speeches of his pontificate. This is seen, for example, in his talk to the Bernardini [in 2008 at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris], with his insistence on the quaerere Deum: “The monks did not set out to create a Christian culture: they sought God.” The consequence was a newness of life that led to the creation of an unexpected reality. This pre-eminence of the Mystery is surely one of the foundational pillars. But there are others.

Such as?
For example, the strenuous defense of human reason, which was seen well in his talk in Regensburg, with his paradigmatic affirmation that not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. Attention to this was subsequently deviated by the controversy about Islam. But his insistence on the breadth of reason became a constant of the pontificate. Another example is the talk he did not give at Rome’s La Sapienza University, when they blocked him from speaking, as is the image of the bunker used in his talk to the German Bundestag in 2011. Before that, there is the affirmation of the essential features of Christian faith, of its specificity: the human person’s answer to God’s initiative in history is the acknowledgement of an event. In this sense, the first lines of Deus caritas est, his first encyclical, are decisive.

“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.” This formulation struck everyone...

And it leads straight to the Year of Faith, because a great characteristic of Benedict XVI was precisely the awareness of the irreducibility of the Christian fact. Rather, perhaps this is the dominant factor.

In what sense?
For the Pope, the acknowledgment of Christ is what enables him to explain the other elements: the sovereignty of God and the dignity of the human person. This Pope does not reach Christ later, as a derivation–it is in starting from Christ that he grasps this unconditioned dimension of God, unsubordinated to anything else, as the source of the dignity of the human person. God is always first. An expression of Fr. Giussani may sound very familiar in this context: “Something that comes first.”

In what moments did this centrality emerge with more clarity?
His pontificate was very rich with this awareness. If we were to point to some documents, starting from the encyclicals, I would say his exhortations Sacramentum caritatis and Verbum Dominum, after the respective Synods, are a song to Christ, the Incarnate Word, made present to women and men in the Eucharist and the Word of God. The most recent such document is the catechesis of the Year of Faith. But this primacy is a constant in his texts: concerning the interpretation of Scripture, the life of the common faithful, human expectation, and the dynamism of love, Christ always comes first. Let’s not forget that Ratzinger was formed in the school of Augustine. But this sensibility was also expressed in certain educative gestures, for example the World Youth Days, moments that addressed the whole world, in which the Pope oriented everyone’s gaze toward the essential: Christ.

Regarding “openness to the whole world,” another salient feature of the pontificate was this dialogue undertaken with modernity, among its aims the defense of reason. What characteristics did it have?
The first point, and it’s not one to be taken for granted, is precisely this strong will for dialogue. Ratzinger said this as early as 2005, when he proposed a “yes” to modernity. It is a critical “yes,” able also to indicate the reductions of the modern dimension of the human person and of reason. But for Benedict XVI, both modernity and the Church have evolved, and today we are able to have a more in depth comparison of ideas on certain great themes such as religious freedom, the relationship between Church and State, and that between science and faith. We can also address ethical problems and the dignity of the human person, themes dear to modern man. He kept that comparison of ideas at a high level, holding direct dialogues, but also giving his contributions in the form of dialogues, echoing the questions of contemporaries. I think this is a characteristic of Ratzinger’s intelligence, because of his vision of the Church in relationship with today’s world.

Doing so, he also read certain cultural categories in an original way: he spoke of “the ecology of man,” of “positive secularity”...
Well, this is an interesting example: positive secularity. In France, in the heart of the tradition that would seem the most hostile to Christianity in Europe, Benedict XVI defended the secularity of the State and the right separation between Church and State, calling, however, for a new phase that goes beyond the stockade of opposition. In sum, he opened dialogue on one of the foundational questions of European civilization. Another example is science. Already as a theologian, Ratzinger had the sensitivity to look at that world with the conviction that reality is intelligible. This opened a new gaze of trust on science and the work of scientists, gave great credit to their contribution of knowledge of reality, and made it possible to face, in a new way, another important point in the relationship with modernity.

Bit by bit, it has become increasingly evident that an essential part of the Magisterium of Benedict XVI was precisely his personal testimony. In some way, he showed with his life the truth of what he indicated in his teaching. In this sense, the moment of his resignation was powerful, but I also have in mind occasions like the World Youth Day in Madrid, and his attitude before the victims of pedophilia. How important was this aspect? How much has the Pope helped us understand that Christianity is first of all something that happens and that is known through testimony?
It is decisive. There was and in many respects still is a cliché about him–the idea that he is a theologian pope, a professor. This is true. He is a very great theologian and professor, but especially so because of his ability to be a witness. He is a witness to Christ, and always has been. When you read his theological works, or follow his interviews, the image of the Panzerkardinal (let’s not forget the kind of insults used against Ratzinger the cardinal) melts away; you realize that both as Pope and before, he has always been very free. In his book Jesus of Nazareth he offers us a concise reflection, almost a kind of doctrinal testament, and he begins it saying that he submits it to free discussion, because this book is not a Magisterial gesture. To my mind, content coincided with power of witness in that gesture. The book communicates in a very strong way the fact that faith in Christ is the point of departure and destination of all of existence, and presents the reasons for this for an open discussion.

He was truly a “humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord,” then.
Yes. In Benedict XVI, words and gestures accompany each other. Even when there were toilsome situations or very grave difficulties, he took them upon himself personally; just think of the cases of pedophilia and the controversy about the Lefebvrians. He took initiative–writing the bishops, judging, acknowledging the mistakes made. On the one hand he corrected and judged, offering the reasons, while on the other he accepted dialogue and reflections proposed to him.

How has the Church changed in these eight years?
Certainly the Church has been helped to acknowledge what is essential in the faith and to communicate it to everyone.

Is the Church doing so? How much has the Magisterium of Benedict XVI impacted the Church and the world?
I believe he has had a profound impact, even though there is still much to assimilate in the life of the Church. This Pope opened himself up, both ad intra and ad extra. Wherever he went and spoke, he obtained the broadening of reason: those who listened to him and compared themselves with what he said discovered questions and could grasp the evidence of reason and the certainty of faith. There is still a long road ahead before this attitude passes into the ecclesiastical fabric, just as there is a great deal to do to look more deeply at the other decisive points of his reflection–for example, his concern for the true interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, an aspect that may be less immediate for the common people, but is of great transcendence for the life of the Church. The Pope binds interpretation to this deep intelligence of the Christian tradition, which is always able to reform itself in continuity with the subject-Church. We should also reflect on this a great deal.

And outside the Church?
Just to give one example, in his volume Dio salvi la ragione [May God Save Reason, Cantagalli, in which five writers look at the Regensburg speech from the point of view of their own backgrounds–Catholic, Muslim, Jew, and atheist], one sees how the Pope was able to receive a response to his talk from some of the great names of the Western scene, including André Glucksmann, Joseph Weiler, and Gustavo Bueno, that reopens some positions. So then, yes, he has had an impact. This is just a small example of a dynamic that has been seen often in these years. In England, in a society that could have all the prejudices possible against the Roman Pope, he was able to generate an attitude that David Cameron, the Prime Minister, summarized well, saying that he challenged the entire country to sit down and think. We could say something similar for his visits to France, the United Nations, the Czech Republic, and other countries, and about his impact at the World Youth Days.

You were there in Madrid...
Yes, and there, too, I saw him overcome a stereotype: “He’s an old Pope, who doesn’t know how to meet young people.” Instead, we saw a Pope who used concise gestures, centered on the core mysteries of the faith: the Eucharist, the cross, the announcement of Jesus to all, charity. Doing so, not only did he sweep up a crowd the likes of which has never been seen in Madrid, but he inspired in the young people a seriousness and profundity they would not have thought themselves capable of.

What remains of that encounter?
I have seen people who rediscovered faith or discovered their vocation. Also, relationships with civil authorities and social realities opened because of those days, and have remained open. After the tsunami of the crowd, obviously, everything flows back to normal a bit, but there are many people at all levels for whom that World Youth Day was a turning point.

There was a powerful element in those days, which we find in other moments and in the catechesis of this Year of Faith: Benedict XVI gave great importance to the affective aspect, desire, but did so always underlining the intrinsic bond with reason, the unity of the “I.” How important was this “re-centering”? And how does it help to recover faith from the terrain of sentimentalism?
It is true, Pope Ratzinger gives great importance to this aspect. In his encyclicals, for example, affection and desire are a foundational factor: reason and freedom are held as a value, as a good. As early as Deus caritas est, Benedict XVI makes a journey that starts from the dynamic of eros, and thus of affective desire, without opposing it to agape, to charity. These texts are exceptionally rich. But also in his message to the 2012 Meeting of Rimini, there was a valorization of the dynamic of desire precisely because it is intimately bound to the ultimate questions of reason. For this reason, it is not a sentimental impetus: it has to do with the full intelligence of reality, and not just with inclination or drive.

Alongside the call to “leave the bunker” and “broaden reason” there was also a continual insistence on the “joy and beauty” of being Christians, and how it is totally to our benefit, humanly speaking. Here, too, what newness has his Magisterium brought?
There is so much to say on this point. I think of the encounters with artists, and his words at the Scala. But let’s just look at one example that I saw close up: his interpretation of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona. On that occasion, the Pope gave a catechesis on beauty that indicates once more his vital sensitivity to Christianity in Europe: in the journey of man, God emerges as the source of this beauty, just as He is the source of goodness and truth. The fascination that generates attraction remains the initial factor of the communication of the faith.

And the relationship with Communion and Liberation? Joseph Ratzinger was a good friend of Fr. Giussani, but it is truly moving to see the way his Magisterium is also helping us understand more deeply the charism of Giussani.
Those educated by Fr. Giussani find a syntony, an affinity with this Pope that makes him very familiar. Because of the charism, it is possible to share and love his proposals according to the syntony that Ratzinger himself spoke of in his homily at Fr. Giussani’s funeral, and that he spoke of again just a few weeks ago, in the audience with the Missionary Priests of the Fraternity of Saint Charles Borromeo. This familiarity is a grace within a grace. One can only acknowledge it with gratitude and wonder.

It is amazing how even in the gesture of resignation there is something that makes us understand better some points we have worked on in recent times: the call to realize that “the Christian is attached to no one but Jesus,” as Fr. Giussani said; the supremacy of testimony and not of power; the fact that circumstances are “a decisive and not secondary factor” in one’s personal vocation... These things we have seen incarnate in a very powerful way and at the maximum level in the Pope.
With his resignation, too, Benedict XVI made a gesture of love for Christ and trust in God in action. God is real, so real that He can guide the Church with the assistance of the Spirit. It is true, he makes us see well that it is to our advantage to attach ourselves to “no one but Jesus.” His testimony forces us to take a position in such a way that our faith can grow. He did not merely explain faith: he made it happen. And then he explained it beautifully.