….I hereby forecast that in a century’s time, the early 21st-century pope whose memory will loom largest won’t be either St. Pope John Paul II or Pope Francis, both wildly charismatic figures who dominated the global stage in their day. It instead will be Pope Benedict XVI, the awkward, bookish pontiff who, in his own time, just never seemed to turn the world on with his smile.
With both Pope John Paul and Pope Francis, the force of their personalities comes across best live, either in-person or on TV. As is often said of contextual humor, “you had to be there” to really get the impact….
Yet the nature of this sort of fame is that it has a very brief half-life; it starts to decay, in fact, the moment you’re no longer on-air. Just ask any American today under the age of 30 about Johnny Carson, for instance, and the uncomprehending stares you’re like to get will speak volumes.
The written word, on the other hand, endures, and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI was preeminently a thinker and a writer. If you want to know either Pope John Paul or Pope Francis, you have to see them; to know Pope Benedict, on the other hand, you need to read him.
As a Vatican reporter, I can testify that one key difference between Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict on the road was that with Pope John Paul, his speeches on trips were often a bit disjointed and hard to follow from beginning to end, but they always contained that money quote that would become the day’s headline. With Pope Benedict it was the opposite — A always led to B, and B led to C, etc., with crystalline clarity, though usually without that zinger of a sound bite.
To know Pope Benedict the best, you need to read his works prior to becoming pope as well as his output in office.
In 100 years’ time, it’s a good bet that several works by Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict still will be studied and dissected in seminaries, Catholic universities, think tanks and publishing houses. Here’s a decidedly partial list — no more, really, than a sampler.
Introduction to Christianity (1968): Essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the intellectual currents that shaped the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the period immediately following.
Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (1977): Cardinal Ratzinger once referred to this as “my most thorough work, and the one I labored over the most strenuously.”
The Spirit of the Liturgy (1978): Liturgy was an idée fixe (“fixed idea”) for Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict over the entire scope of his life and career, and this volume presents his most developed views on the nature of Catholic worship.
Church, Ecumenism and Politics (1987): Informed in part by debates over liberation theology, this is Cardinal Ratzinger’s most developed treatment of the folly of a “political” Christianity.
Deus Caritas Est (2005): Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, and probably the most sustained reflection ever issued by a pope on the relationship between divinity and human erotic love.
Speeches in Regensburg, Germany, 2006; the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, 2008; Westminster Hall in London, 2010; and the Bundestag in Germany, 2011: In these four discourses, Pope Benedict laid out a vision of the relationship between reason and faith and the role of religious faith in secular democracies. Going forward, no graduate seminary on secularity and religion likely ever will be held without at least considering these works.
To be honest, it’s difficult to assemble such a list of written works by any other modern pope that are likely to pass into posterity, especially works published before they even ascended to the Throne of Peter….
Complete story by John Allen in Angelus News.