Through successive waves of “downsizing,” and painful parting with many treasured books, I have carefully retained one volume: number 17 of the formidable series published before and during Vatican II by Herder and Herder under the collective title Quaestiones Disputatae. The slim book, Revelation and Tradition, contains three essays, one by Karl Rahner and two by Joseph Ratzinger. I bought it when I was a seminarian finishing my studies in Rome during the last session of the Council. I was naturally eager to read the work of two of the Council’s periti, and I willingly plunked down twelve hundred lire, equivalent to the cover price of $1.95.
I was already somewhat familiar with Rahner, but this was my first formal encounter with Ratzinger. Rahner’s essay I found turgid; but Ratzinger’s was not only pellucid—it was illuminating. What it impressed upon me, as a young theology student, was an understanding of revelation as personal communication, and hence requiring the loving and faith-filled reception by a subject. Three sentences were particularly “revelatory.” Ratzinger maintained that “Revelation is more than scripture to the extent that reality exceeds information about it. . . . For revelation always and only becomes a reality where there is faith.” And “the actual reality which occurs in Christian revelation is nothing and no other than Christ himself.”
Already evident in these observations was Ratzinger’s commitment to the inseparability of theology and spirituality. Theology as “faith seeking understanding” arises from a revelation, given and accepted, whose defining subject is Jesus Christ. Revelation, so understood, is experiential, relational, and affective—far richer than the narrowly propositional approach of the theology manuals. This is the understanding of revelation that is magisterially set forth in Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, in whose drafting Joseph Ratzinger played an important role.
My next serious encounter with Ratzinger came a few years later. I was a doctoral student at Yale in the tumultuous late sixties, slated to begin teaching at Saint Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie in fall 1970. Aside from the daunting prospect of teaching for the first time, there loomed the challenge of what texts to use. The manuals had been discarded. Random articles proliferated, each probing in a tentative and exploratory fashion. None provided more than finger food, not the substantive fare needed by first-year seminarians.
Ratzinger came to the rescue. His aid took the form of a book that has since become a theological classic, translated into twenty languages: Introduction to Christianity. It originated as lectures delivered in Tübingen in 1967, was published the following year in German, and was translated into English in 1969—just in time to serve as the main text for my course at Dunwoodie. I venture to say it was probably the first use of the book in a seminary course in the United States. I taught the book every year of my eight years at Dunwoodie, and often thereafter in graduate seminars at Boston College. The book has had a decisive influence upon many a student over the more than fifty years since it first appeared.
A few features of the book are worth highlighting since they remain relevant even today. First, the clear-sightedness with which Ratzinger saw, within a few years of the Council’s close, the widespread betrayal of the Council’s foundational principles and governing affirmations. In the “Preface,” dated summer 1968, he contends: “The question of the real content and meaning of the Christian faith is enveloped today in a greater fog of uncertainty than at almost any earlier period in history.” And he draws upon the folk story of “Clever Hans”—who trades his lump of gold for ever less valuable objects until he is left with a whetstone—to indict those theologians who have “gradually watered down the demands of faith.” A few years later he would sum up the betrayal by lamenting that “they changed wine into water and called it ‘aggiornamento.’”
Second, the book is structured as a theological-spiritual meditation upon the Apostles’ Creed. The choice is significant, for its origin is the baptismal exchange wherein the neophyte commits to a transformed existence, renouncing those powers that diminish the human and confessing the life-giving belief in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Indeed, Ratzinger boldly sets forth his book’s aim: “to help understand faith afresh as something that makes possible true humanity in the world of today.”
Third, the heart of the matter (and of the book) is its Christological vision. Once again, Ratzinger's approach is fully theological and intensely personal. “Christian faith is more than the option in favor of a spiritual ground to the world,” he writes. “Its central formula is not ‘I believe in something,’ but ‘I believe in you.’ It is the encounter with the man Jesus, and in this encounter, it experiences the meaning of the world as a person.” It is Jesus who grounds and enables transformed human existence: what the tradition calls theosis or divinization.
As always with Ratzinger, his reflection weds fidelity and creativity. The man abhorred pre-packaged expressions, what John Henry Newman called “unreal words.” In a biting comment written prior to Vatican II, the young theologian wrote: “Perhaps nothing . . . has done more harm to preaching than the loss of credibility that it incurred by merely handing on formulas that were no longer the living intellectual property of those who were proclaiming them.” And, after the Council, he lamented that often the malady remained the same, save that “dogmatic formulas” were now often replaced by “secular slogans,” apodictically proclaimed.
In Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger sketched an approach to Christology that was faithful to the Church’s millennial tradition, yet painted in fresh interpersonal language. Jesus Christ is the new Adam, the eschatos Adam, who is defined by total relationality: the Son whose existence is from the Father, for the sake of men and women of every age. Jesus Christ does not merely institute the Eucharist. His total being is Eucharist: gratitude to the Father, self-gift for the many. And he continually consecrates his Church, by his loving sacrifice, as a eucharistic people.
What was already evident in Introduction to Christianity is that the crisis of the post-Vatican II Church is, at its core, a Christological crisis. The transforming wine who is Jesus Christ is diluted by those who invoke him only as an inspiring model for sundry social causes, or summarily dismiss him as a barely knowable figure from the first century of the “common era.” It is this discernment that impelled Benedict to compose his trilogy Jesus of Nazareth. He expressed his pastoral concern poignantly in the foreword to the first volume: “This is a dramatic situation for faith, because its point of reference is being placed in doubt: Intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air.” It is only through a lived relationship with Jesus, who is the way, truth, and life, that we have access to the Trinity’s love in which all things live and move and have their being.
Since that first encounter with the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, that young seminarian has become (how is it possible?) an octogenarian. I have taught courses on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger, written articles appreciative of his theological vision, and profited personally from his spiritual wisdom. His homilies as pope have been, for me, sources of insight and renewed commitment to following Christ. And in my almost fifty-eight years of priesthood, his profound theology of the liturgy has been a polestar for my own.
In the foreword to the inaugural volume of his Collected Works, Benedict XVI wrote: “The liturgy of the Church has been for me since my childhood the central reality of my life, and . . . it became the center of my theological efforts.” Given the depth and richness of his liturgical writings, it is sad testament to the theological superficiality of many of his critics that they reductively charge him with preferring that the priest celebrate Mass with his back to the congregation. Aside from the empirical fact that the Masses Benedict celebrated in Saint Peter’s Basilica were always “coram populo,” his concern was less physical position than spiritual orientation.
What is at stake, of course, is Christological: the unique and universal significance of Jesus Christ. As I have written, in contemporary Church life and theology, it can too often seem as if we are a “decapitated body,” a self-referential gathering that proceeds (in the words of Cardinal Cantalamessa) “etsi Christus non daretur”—as if Christ did not exist. But Ratzinger insists, in his splendid The Spirit of the Liturgy, “what matters is looking together at the Lord. It is now not a question of dialogue but of common worship, of setting off toward the One who is to come.”
For this humble worker in the Lord's vineyard, attuned to the rhythms of the liturgical year, it certainly seems providential that his baptismal liturgy was celebrated on the Vigil of Easter and that his funeral liturgy will be on the Vigil of the Epiphany. The Epiphany always had a special attraction for the theologian pope. It unites the hopes of Israel and the nations. It integrates the light of faith and that of reason. Among the memorable homilies of Pope Benedict, those for the Epiphany have a special luster.
In the homily he preached on the first Feast of the Epiphany of his pontificate, Benedict XVI said,
The Church is holy, but made up of men and women with their limitations and errors. It is Christ, Christ alone, who in giving us the Holy Spirit is able to transform our misery and constantly renew us. He is the light of the peoples, the lumen gentium, who has chosen to illumine the world through his Church.“How can this come about?”, we also ask ourselves with the words that the Virgin addresses to the Archangel Gabriel. And she herself, the Mother of Christ and of the Church, gives us the answer: with her example of total availability to God's will—“fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum” (Lk 1: 38)—she teaches us to be a “manifestation” of the Lord, opening our hearts to the power of grace and faithfully abiding by the words of her Son, light of the world and the ultimate end of history.
If the music of Mozart always delighted Ratzinger by the depth of its humanity, the music of Bach strengthened him by its sublime witness and call to faith. Hence it is fitting that I was listening to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio when news came of Benedict’s death. The Fourth Cantata, that for New Year’s Day, ends with a soft, prayerful chorale:
May Jesus govern my beginning,
May Jesus ever remain at my side.
May Jesus direct my feelings,
May Jesus alone be my desire.
May Jesus be in my thoughts.
Jesus, let me never waver.
How consonant with his entire life’s journey and vision that, as Joseph Ratzinger lay dying, his final words would be: “Signore, ti amo.”
Robert P. Imbelli is a priest of the archdiocese of New York and the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination.
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