Detroit scholars, theologians remember Pope Benedict XVI as an intellectual titan

Pope Benedict XVI is pictured at his desk in the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo, Italy, in this 2010 photo. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Late pope's theological insights — centered on the person of Jesus — will be studied, referenced for generations to come

DETROIT Even before he was Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger was a titan of the theological and philosophical world.

The cardinal-archbishop of Munich and Freising in Germany had served as the president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, president of the International Theological Commission, prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and dean of the College of Cardinals before he was elected to the papacy on April 19, 2005.

Cardinal Ratzinger was already known for his titles, “Introduction to Christianity,” “The Spirit of the Liturgy” and “God is Near Us.”

He continued writing after ascending to the chair of St. Peter, with his famed three-volume set “Jesus of Nazareth” and his three papal encyclicals: “Deus caritas est” (God is Love), “Spe salvi” (In Hope We Were Saved) and “Caritas in veritate” (Charity in Truth).

Local Catholic scholars laud the philosophical, theological and academic richness Pope Benedict XVI gave the Church that is sure to be studied by scholars for decades and beyond.

But for all his intellectual might, Pope Benedict boiled down his writings to a simple truth: God became man in Jesus Christ because He loves us.

“He saw our Lord as Incarnate Love, the revelation of who He was, and everything has to be seen in that supreme revelation of who God was to us in Jesus of Nazareth,” Robert Fastiggi, Ph.D., the Bishop Kevin M. Britt Chair of Dogmatic Theology and Christology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, told Detroit Catholic. “I think that was his focus point. He was always calling us back to the person of Jesus Christ, true God and true man.”

Pope Benedict XVI published three books in his "Jesus of Nazareth" series. Pictured are copies of the last in the series, "The Infancy of Jesus," displayed for the media in different languages at the Vatican in 2012. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Benedict XVI published three books in his "Jesus of Nazareth" series. Pictured are copies of the last in the series, "The Infancy of Jesus," displayed for the media in different languages at the Vatican in 2012. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Fastiggi found it providential that Pope Benedict XVI died on the feast day of Pope St. Sylvester, the pontiff who convened the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which articulated the truth that Jesus Christ is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made.”

“That was the focus of Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Ratzinger,” Fastiggi said.

Fastiggi had the grace of meeting two popes on the same day in 1996, when he and a friend attended a private Mass celebrated by St. John Paul II, and after greeting the pope, they left the apostolic palace and came across Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who was seen as Pope St. John Paul II’s “right-hand man.”

“Such a blessing, greeting two popes in an hour, a future pope and the present pope at the time; I’ll always cherish that moment,” Fastiggi said.

Fastiggi related Pope Benedict's scholarship to that of St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure, but wasn’t afraid to delve into St. Thomas Aquinas from time to time, a sign of the late pontiff’s intellectual capacity and ability to translate high-minded theological concepts to daily discipleship.

“He highlighted Jesus Christ as the supreme revelation,” Fastiggi said. “He stood up to religious relativism and was a man of the liturgy. He understood the liturgy is about God, not us; it’s God’s work. In his great book, ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy,’ he articulates a very rich liturgical theology. If I had to list his contributions, it would be his work with moral theology, Christo-centric theology, and being a great defender, a proper defender of Vatican II.”

Joseph Ratzinger was ordained a priest on June 29, 1951, and was an observer of all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council. His philosophy and theology was great influenced by living through World War II and the “post-Christian society” of Europe.

His writings expressed the need for the faithful to understand who Jesus really is and how faith in Christ isn’t tied to a set of principles or social positions, but a belief in God who walked among man.

Ralph Martin, Ph.D., professor of theology and director of graduate programs in the new evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, said Pope Benedict XVI’s work inspired whole new generation of biblical theologians who are restoring people’s faith in the truthfulness of God’s Word.

“Pope Benedict XVI’s life and work has been a huge encouragement for me,” Martin said. “If I were to pick out what I think his most significant contribution to the life of the Church is, it would be his restoration of Catholic biblical scholarship to its traditional place in the life of the Church; seeking to understand the inspired Word of God rather than trying to explain it way to accommodate secular culture.”

Pope Benedict XVI signs a copy of his encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate" ("Charity in Truth"), at the Vatican July 6, 2009. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Catholic Press Photo)
Pope Benedict XVI signs a copy of his encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate" ("Charity in Truth"), at the Vatican July 6, 2009. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Catholic Press Photo)

After surviving World War II as a child in Germany and growing up in an increasingly secular world, Cardinal Ratzinger’s — and later Pope Benedict’s — writing formed discipleship around the person of Jesus Christ.

Msgr. Todd Lajiness, administrator of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth and former rector and president of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, said scholars and evangelists today draw upon Pope Benedict when speaking about having a personal encounter with Jesus Christ that is rooted in knowing Jesus as a person who “bridges the theological and the spiritual.”

“From a theological and philosophical perspective, we can’t underestimate the depth of his intellectual gifts,” Msgr. Lajiness said. “I think he had a rare capacity to connect with the theological richness of the tradition and the spiritual vibrancy of our faith in a way very few could do. His intellectual exploration, this theology, wasn’t sterile at all. He never wanted to be abstract or removed from our real, personal relationship with Jesus.”

Msgr. Lajiness recalled meeting Pope Benedict XVI when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, recalling him as man of “incredible gentility.”

“He was a gentle man, a soft-spoken man,” Msgr. Lajiness said. “When he came out on the balcony after being elected, we knew he would continue to provide the Church with an incredibly coherent and rich theological and philosophical and pastoral vision that would be really well thought out and be a beautiful vision in leading the Church.”

Beyond Pope Benedict’s writing, his spirituality, intellect and pastoral style had a great influence on men discerning and studying for the priesthood.

Fr. Stephen Pullis, graduate pastoral formation director at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where he is also an instructor, said he was greatly inspired by interviews in which Pope Benedict gave his thoughts on the Church, spirituality and the role of the Church in an increasingly secular world.

“It was the witness of John Paul II and the teaching of Joseph Ratzinger and Pope Benedict that really shaped a lot of my understanding and love for the Catholic faith,” Fr. Pullis said. “I owe a deep debt, a deep gratitude to Pope Benedict for all of his work, especially for his theological insights, in helping me grow in my faith and insight in growing in the priesthood.”

Fr. Pullis pointed to then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s role as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, defending the truths of the faith under the papacy of St. John Paul II and traditions of the Church post-Vatican II as the contributions scholars will be studying for decades to come.

“A lot of people comment on the fact that he was the last living connection to the Second Vatican Council,” Fr. Pullis said. “He was there in the early sessions as a priest-observer. Pope Benedict really thought in the continuity of John Paul the Great; he saw his papacy as bringing to full flourishing the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.”

“He said our Christian faith is an encounter with a Person,” Fr. Pullis added. “He was always bringing us back to Jesus, bringing us back to a person, encountering Christ in his humanity and his divinity. He saw that as a flourishing of what the Second Vatican Council proposed to the Church and the work of how we as Catholics live out our faith in a world that has fundamental differences to what we believe.”


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