As we continue to celebrate and reflect upon Pope Benedict’s life and legacy, I thought I would share five quotes that surprised me and which have had a profound impact on my life and my understanding of the faith. Each quote is brief. Following each one, I will provide its original context and why it affected me.
To my knowledge, none except the first is typically found in the “best of” quote lists scattered across the internet. Benedict said and wrote so many deep, profound, and provocative things during his long and accomplished career, so it’s not surprising that much of what he said has gone unnoticed. He was certainly a highly esteemed and influential theologian, and Pedro Gabriel rightly noted that people will be reading his words and discovering him anew well into the future.
Certainly I have the bookshelves full of Joseph Ratzinger titles typical of a certain type of Catholic of my generation. I’ve read many of those books multiple times, and I’ve spent many more hours returning to his writing for research purposes. Speaking personally, however, it was not Benedict’s theology that had the most impact, but his influence as a humble and honest evangelizer.
Around the time he became pope, I began to ask questions about the Catholic faith. I wasn’t entertaining the idea of leaving the faith, but I truly began to wonder whether I’d been “doing it wrong.” I’ve written before about how I’d long bought into a rules-and-discipline approach to the faith, where eternal damnation lurked around every corner. It was as joyless as it sounds.
Yet Christianity spoke so often of joy and happiness and freedom – something totally foreign to my lived experience. Sure, I knew some Christians who seemed joyful, but it was unclear to me how someone could be joyful in their Christianity when hell (or at least centuries in Purgatory) was just a slip on the ice away. My notion was that to be a saint meant accepting my lot in life, offering up all my suffering, living out my moral obligations, performing devotions, and white-knuckling it until the bitter end.
That is why this first quote struck me deeply:
“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
This sentence is often quoted by Catholics these days, especially by Pope Francis, but when I came across it in the opening sentences of Benedict’s first encyclical, I’d never heard anything like it. At least in a Catholic context. Or at least in a way I’d noticed.
The key word in this quote for me was “person.” The life-changing idea was that faith should be understood primarily in the context of encountering a person: Jesus Christ. Faith isn’t a worldwide apologetics debate with those who disagree with us, but it’s an encounter with the living God and sharing that encounter with others.
Later in the encyclical, Benedict explained me to a tee: “If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be ‘devout’ and to perform my ‘religious duties’, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely ‘proper’, but loveless.”
Perhaps I wasn’t that bad, but my self-accusation was real. I set out on a journey to better understand what an encounter with the person of Christ really is. And not long thereafter, I read these words:
“Intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends”
This quote appears, almost as an afterthought, in Benedict’s foreword to his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, (dated September 30, 2006). Benedict is discussing how some historical-critical scripture scholars had presented Christ in a distorted or ideological way: “at one end of the spectrum, Jesus was the anti-Roman revolutionary working — though finally failing — to overthrow the ruling powers; at the other end, he was the meek moral teacher who approves everything and unaccountably comes to grief.”
The negative implication of these widely disparate depictions of Jesus is that they suggest that we cannot know anything with certainty about the person of Jesus. Benedict adds that “This is a dramatic situation for faith, because its point of reference is being placed in doubt.” And what is the faith’s point of reference? “Intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends.”
In this foreword, Benedict goes on to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of various noteworthy biblical exegetes. He also discusses the historical-critical approach to scripture scholarship at length. My eyes and heart, however, were glued to those words. I desired nothing more than to have an intimate friendship with Jesus. And seeking to live out my friendship with Jesus – in prayer, sacraments, writing and study, and just living life – has been the center of my spiritual life ever since.
But along the way I came to a realization. My personal background and formative experiences are unique to me, as they are to every other person who has ever existed. Our minds all work differently. I’m not the same as other people. Some like country, some like rock and roll.
That’s why some of you who are reading this might think that this has been a pretty stupid article thus far. Some things strike a chord with me that fall flat with others. I think it takes a certain amount of spiritual and emotional maturity to fully understand that what resonates with one person doesn’t necessarily resonate with everyone else. Think about it. Rule-followers don’t intuitively understand the mind of a rebel. Hedonists might find it hard to understand prudes. It’s important to realize, similarly, that my-way-or-the-highway approaches to anything are likely doomed to catastrophic failure.
And this applies to evangelization as well. Which is why this quote struck me:
“Q. How many ways are there to God?
A. As many as there are people.”
This exchange is found in Peter Seewald’s 1997 book-length interview with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium (p. 32). I read this in 2011 or so. At the time, I was becoming fascinated by the complicated tapestry of approaches to evangelization: apologetics-oriented approaches, emotional encounters, the stories of those who had “read their way” to the faith, the journeys of those who strayed and returned. Likewise, I was intrigued about those with nominal faith, or even tortured faith. What kept them hanging on?
What was I to make of this puzzle? Naturally, Ratzinger was light years ahead of me. In the interview, he continued, “For even within the same faith each man’s way is an entirely personal one. We have Christ’s word: I am the way. In that respect, there is ultimately one way, and everyone who is on the way to God is therefore in some sense also on the way of Jesus Christ. But this does not mean that all ways are identical in terms of consciousness and will, but, on the contrary, the one way is so big that it becomes a personal way for each man.”
Here, Benedict provides the reason why standard “models” for evangelization are extremely lacking in their effectiveness. This applies especially to approaches that place their emphasis on trying to convince others to become and stay Catholic. Such models have limitations in scope and persuasiveness. Take, for example, the standard EWTN/Scott Hahn apologetics template, which goes something like this:
- Get saved as an Evangelical.
- Study the Early Church Fathers.
- Realize your presuppositions about the Catholic Church are wrong (insert Newman quote here).
- Become Catholic.
This type of old-school Catholic apologetics seems to work pretty well with a certain set of historically- and scripturally-minded Protestants, but that’s not most people, least of all those who are a part of contemporary Western secular culture. Those arguments are irrelevant to the experiences of most people in the West today because they are rooted in a shared acceptance of Christian precepts and scripture. Even if an apologetical approach was relevant, the Church’s credibility and social capital aren’t exactly at a premium. Argumentation and debate have limited appeal in the present environment. Creative and radical new approaches are needed.
This is where the next quote from Benedict comes in:
“The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by ‘attraction’”
Because this idea has become so closely associated with Pope Francis’s ministry, it is perhaps not surprising that this quote comes from Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the inaugural session of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM) at the Conference Hall of the Shrine of Aparecida on May 13, 2007. That’s right, Benedict said these words at the opening of the famous Aparecida conference under the leadership of then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. This is the gathering that yielded the Aparecida document. The Aparecida document is foundational for the Franciscan pontificate, and many of its themes are captured in his first exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
Immediately before these words, Pope Benedict says, “To you, who represent the Church in Latin America, today I symbolically entrust my Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, in which I sought to point out to everyone the essence of the Christian message. The Church considers herself the disciple and missionary of this Love: missionary only insofar as she is a disciple, capable of being attracted constantly and with renewed wonder by the God who has loved us and who loves us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:10).”
We are a missionary Church, made up of many people. We are all different – we look different, we have different experiences, we have different backgrounds and cultures, we have different proclivities and sins, likes and dislikes, talents and weaknesses. And each of us who is committed to this missionary vision seeks to bring about the Kingdom and to renew the Church according to our own strengths and abilities. And even if our approaches and styles and preferences differ, we, as Catholic Christians, are unified through an underlying continuity with the pope, whomever he is.
This is why the final quote struck me profoundly:
“Among you, in the College of Cardinals, there is also the future pope to whom today I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience.”
Benedict spoke these words at the conclusion of his final address to the College of Cardinals on February 28, 2013. Benedict himself kept his word, but sadly many Catholics – including many in that room – refused to follow his example. Early in the pontificate of his successor, these words were a consolation to me when I struggled with something Pope Francis said or did. I thought, if Pope Benedict has pledged Francis his unconditional obedience, then the least I could do is give him a chance.
And for that, Holy Father Benedict, I am forever grateful.
May eternal light shine upon you.
[Update: 2 Jan 2022, 2:45pm EST – edited section on apologetics for clarity.]
Image: By Marek.69 talk – Marek Kośniowski, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5544448
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.