On Benedict XVI’s birthday, meet him on his own terms

Today is the 91st birthday of our beloved Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI. A good day to pray for this great and good man — and to meet him for the first time, if you haven’t already, in his writing. (Book links are affiliate links.)

You’ll recall that, according to the mass media, Benedict XVI was a cold and creaky Emperor Palpatine who grinned with black gums as he brought his cruel fist crashing down on life, liberty, and the pursuit of sexy fun. They really believed it, too, because they are morons.

But you’re not a moron! Do yourself a favor and read something the man actually wrote, like the three volumes of Jesus of Nazareth. These make excellent reading in adoration, and will bring you closer to Christ. What more could you want? And it will be easy.

That’s the real surprise of reading Ratzinger: there’s no wading, no disciplined gritting of teeth, no grinding of mental muscles as you make your way through his works.  I’m ashamed to remember how amazed I was to find myself enjoying his writing — and I am a lazy reader, believe me. John Paul II, by contrast, was so handsome and approachable, so warm and compassionate in person. He was evangelization personified. But his writing style . . . gevalt. I’d rather nibble my way through the Berlin Wall than read all the way to the end of a JPII encyclical. This is a me-problem, not a him-problem; but still, it’s a problem.

But Benedict XVI was (is) just the opposite. To see or hear him (at least in the snippets that rose to the surface of pop culture) was to reinforce every stereotype about the authoritarian, elitist, unapproachable magisterium of the Church. But to read him is like watching the sun rise, gorgeously, joyfully, making everything it touches clear and beautiful. And he knows his audience, understands their prejudices, anticipates their questions, and speaks directly to them. There are great depths in his writing, but they are depths you can plumb.

Try his short work In the Beginning:” A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall. Many Catholics live with an uneasy shame when we face the question of how the world began. We are half afraid that the Church isn’t ready to deal with science — that it defiantly insists we believe God made the world with big old hands in six 24-hour days, like a white-bearded Gepetto who’s been taking his pep pills.

Well, no. The Church is well aware of all the theories of how the universe came to be (it was a priest, Georges Lemaître, who first hypothesized the Big Bang theory), and she has spent a considerable amount of time synthesizing Genesis, astronomy, and cosmology, and working through the existential ramifications of various theories of how the world came to be. Ratzinger gently, firmly, and wittily guides us through what she has learned, not like a scholar speaking to scholars, but like an experienced professor who knows his material and his students equally well. I recommend this book for high schoolers and anyone else who thinks we must choose between science and faith, or anyone who rejects both unthinking fundamentalism and sneering rationalism.

Don’t be stupid, be a smarty! Meet Benedict XVI on his own terms. I guarantee you’ll be delighted, both with what you come to learn about Christ, and what you come to learn about Ratzinger himself. He’s a gentle and brilliant friend you need to have in your life. He is a man full of heartfelt courtesy and love — not abstract, intellectualized caritas, but a sweet yearning to save, comfort, sanctify and teach his flock.

A version of this post originally ran at the National Catholic Register in 2016.

photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) Pope Benedict XVI Holds His Final General Audience via photopin (license)

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10 thoughts on “On Benedict XVI’s birthday, meet him on his own terms”

  1. We are blessed to have him as our pope. Honestly, no one has brought the light of Christ much brighter than Benedict XVI. His writings on Christ is what made me contemplate more on the life of Christ. Happy Birthday to humble and wise pope emeritus.

  2. Check out the Laudate app..daily meditations and readings… and click on “Benedictus Moments.” Beautiful snippets of his writing every day with an incredible narrator/voice who is just as captivating. I loved the analogy of the sun rising and making it all clear and beautiful. So true!

  3. I suggest reading Benedict’s brilliant encyclical “Deus Caritias Est”(God is love). God’s love was an overarching theme of his papacy.

  4. Yes! Thank you!

    My father (Methodist) was a sergeant in the U.S. Army and in the area of Papa Ben’s home town at the end of the war. I do wonder if he had occasion to say to young Karl Ratzinger among other P.O.W.s “Keep moving, bud.”

    Two men I much admire.

  5. I too was surprised at how easy he is to read. As I read, the word, loving, kept occurring to me. Reading him is like listening to the brilliant and loving Catholic grandfather I wish I had had. I’m so glad he loves to write.

  6. Kind of relieved to read this. I couldn’t get through John Paul ll at all. Benedict, like you state, is a pleasure.

    1. I agree, Benedict XVI is a gifted writer. (And preacher, several of his works are collections of his homilies.) I just finished his “On Teaching and Learning the Love of God” which is a collection of homilies on what it means to be a deacon, priest, and bishop. Great stuff.

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