Benedict XVI (Catholic Press Photo)

Benedict XVI: The decisive direction

One year after his death, we remember Joseph Ratzinger and his deep bond with Saint Augustine, centred on the theme of conversion, only possible if one loves and recognizes oneself as loved.
Pietro Luca Azzaro*

"Lord, I love you." The last words of Benedict XVI, pronounced at dawn on December 31, 2022 in the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican, a few steps from the tomb of Saint Peter, bring to mind those with which one spring morning, on the shores of Lake Tiberias, his first predecessor responded to the risen Lord who was about to entrust him with the specific mission of leading the entire community of his disciples: '"Simon of John, do you love me? [...] He said to him: 'Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you'. Jesus said: 'Feed my sheep'" (Jn 21:17). What also comes to mind are the words addressed to the Lord by the one whom Joseph Ratzinger had considered from his youth as "a great friend and teacher", as a seal of his conversion: "Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new" (St Augustine, Confessions, X, 26-27).

In fact, what had immediately and most struck the young doctoral student studying the thought of the philosopher from Hippo was precisely the origin of the story of Saint Augustine, namely the personal experience of conversion, all centred on loving and being loved; a profoundly human and true dynamic that, many years later, Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas est, would summarise as follows: “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.” On this basis, thanks also to his study of Saint Augustine's ecclesiology, Joseph Ratzinger had increasingly developed the conviction that the Church is precisely “the Lord's communicating with us, which at the same time generates the authentic communication of men among themselves. That is why the Church is born around an altar.” And that is why the Eucharist is "the living procedure of Christ's communion with us."

When Vatican II posed the question of the need for a renewal of the Church, it was already perfectly clear to the young professor of dogmatics and conciliar expert – who had also hoped for a 'Council of renewal' – that 'updating' could not mean the formulation of new doctrines, the creation of another Church, but instead facilitating as much as possible, in today's world and for today's man, the encounter with that Person, that conversion, that communication, that communion.

In this sense, at the beginning of the 1950s, the young chaplain of the Church of the Precious Blood in Munich had seen how a ‘habitual Christianity’ testified to by the ‘certificate of Baptism’ was becoming more and more widespread, which in fact was however a ‘new paganism’, as he would write a few years later. That is to say, a ‘conventional’ Christianity, so to speak, in which the main truths of faith were still remembered and perhaps, almost by force of inertia, liturgical celebrations were still attended on holy days, but in which the "memory of the Lord" had been lost; in which the Christian faith was ultimately perceived as a past that had nothing to do with life.

“Reviving the memory of the Lord: this is what we call renewal, what we call conversion.” This is how Joseph Ratzinger concluded a homily years later dedicated precisely to the relevance of Saint Augustine. Whereas before, when he was a university professor at Tübingen and Regensburg and then Archbishop of Munich and Freising, he had been able to observe how it was precisely the progressive post-conciliar affirmation of an arbitrary interpretation of the 'renewal' of the Church – which, moreover (as he would never tire of emphasising over the years), found no confirmation in the conciliar documents and not even in the idea of reform that animated the Council Fathers –, by a dramatic heterogeneity of the goals, risked reducing the Church, in its daily dimension, to an arid institution determined by exhausting activism.

"What does God really want from us?" asked the Prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith, the journalist Peter Seewald, at the end of a long interview after which he himself would definitively re-join the Church: "That we become people who love", he replied, "and that is, that we realise our likeness to Him. For, as Saint John says, He is love, and He desires that there be creatures similar to Him, who, freely choosing to love, become like Him, belong to Him and thus spread His beauty." In the words of the future successor of the Prince of the Apostles, the memory of Peter's encounter with the risen Lord comes alive, as well as the declaration of love that Augustine addressed to him.

"When one in his life has the experience of a great love, that is the moment of 'redemption' that gives new meaning to his life" (Spe salvi). The experience of the great love, capitalised and without plural, of the love that does not betray, is truly the origin of Benedict XVI's theology, today judged by all to be absolutely unique for its vastness, depth, coherence and internal unity.

Fides quaerens intellectum, intellectus quaerens fidem, faith seeks reason, and reason seeks faith, said Saint Augustine. There is no contemporary thinker who in a more profound, and at the same time more immediately accessible, more convincing, and more exciting way has shown and communicated the reasonableness of faith than Benedict XVI, thus reconciling modern man with his nature, with his being man. There is no one among his contemporaries who has flown higher than he has on the great wings of faith and reason, overcoming fideism and sceptical-academic rationalism, to ascend to that height to which faith and reason – fruits of the one Logos, of the eternal and incarnate God Love – naturally tend: to the contemplation of truth, that is, of the Lord: "You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You" (St Augustine, Confessions, I,1).

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"Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; and the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. " (St Augustine, De Civitate Dei, XIV,28). More than any other contemporary philosopher, Benedict XVI has shown the dramatic relevance of the famous Augustinian dichotomy. Indeed, what else is self-love to the point of contempt for God today if not the core of that “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists of one’s own ego and desires”? Benedict XVI has thus characterized the heart of every totalitarian power: the exclusion of God from the public sphere, the denial of the deepest truth about man and at the same time of the deepest truth about God: the belonging of one to the other, the profound bond of love that unites them, which is also the authentic foundation of the dignity and true freedom of every man. Because true freedom – he tells us from the very beginning of his intellectual and human journey – is not without any bond, but the path that leads to the great bond that, filling the heart, makes one truly free: “Lord I love you.”

Already as a young interpreter of Saint Augustine, he had understood how utopian, and even anti-Christian, the (anti)political illusion of establishing the perfect Christian State on earth was, as well as the ecclesial illusion of defeating paganism with “attempts at Christianization” based on the “intimate alliance” of the Church with the State. The Church has always developed and will always develop "by 'attraction': just as Christ 'draws all to himself' by the power of his love". Therefore, the road to a flowering and re-blooming of the faith has never passed and will never pass through its politicisation and the transformation of the Church into a social movement – a dynamic that, on the contrary, destroys the faith and the Church from within. The path passes and will always pass from “an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives," he would write in his last encyclical, Lumen fidei (which is also Pope Francis' first). Just as it was for Saint Peter and Saint Augustine, and therefore it passes through the presence of witnesses, of saints, of men who – as Joseph Ratzinger stated a few weeks before becoming pope –, "through an enlightened and lived faith, render God credible in this world [...]. It is only by means of men who have been touched by God that God can return to be with mankind.”

*translator and editor of the Opera Omnia of Benedict XVI. A graduate and doctorate in Germany, he teaches History of Political Thought at the Catholic University of Milan and is the secretary of the Ratzinger Foundation