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)