Credit: Position Papers

Review: Christ Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict 

A deep theological understanding and coherent orthodoxy should be the best foundation for good pastoral practice yet, Joseph Ratzinger/ Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who was such an outstanding exemplar of both, is often perceived as lacking in pastoral sensitivity, characterised as God’s stern Rottweiler or with even worse soubriquets. Yet, his great body of writing – which will be his enduring legacy along with useful commentaries on his work, such as Msgr. Murphy’s Christ Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI – opens up a very different perception of the man. He is the pastor who understands that “man’s deep-seated desire (is) to know the truth” of who we are and what we are called to be. He knows that the answers to those questions are found in Christ. He is a passionate evangelist for that truth because, to use his own words in Cologne on World Youth Day in 2005 “anyone who has discovered Christ must lead others to him”.

Leading of course does not primarily mean preaching or teaching for Ratzinger. It means witnessing with the joy that effuses lives lived in Christ. This does not mean our individuality is dissolved but rather that, like Christ, we are opened up, freed from the narrowness of self to go out “into the whole” and share his love with the world and in the giving become ourselves in a more complete way.

Exploring the mysteries of faith and the mystery of being run in tandem for Ratzinger. The driving force of our lives is the search for joy and meaning. Joy needs meaning. The way to both requires we live according to the truth of our own essential nature. Because of our fallen state, sin leads us away from that truth and from God’s ordinances which of course are orientated towards helping us realise our deepest potential and hence attain the joy we seek.

So to accept ourselves as who we are, creatures made in the image of a loving creator and called to serve him, it is necessary to love God’s law. His commandments lead us to live in justice, truth and love – the values by which we will be judged by Christ in the fullness of time. Like Adam we crave a false freedom and autonomy that leads merely to servitude. Our real freedom is found in dependence on God, who created us in love and for love and offers us “life to the full” (John 10:10) through the greatest outpouring of his love in the death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus, whose life was wholly united with the divine will, asked his apostles to pray as he prayed using the words Luke gives to Jesus in Gethsemane, “Thy will be done…”.

For Ratzinger, the Sermon on the Mount is a portrait of Jesus. He is the one who is in the fullest sense son of God, in the fullest sense sees God, and in the fullest sense possesses the Kingdom of Heaven. Through his saving grace, he calls those who would follow him to imitate that portrait in their lives. In Jesus, fallen human nature, represented by Adam, is united with divinity.  On earth, from his baptism in the Jordan to Calvary, Jesus continues to live within the mystery of the Trinity. Throughout his ministry, he was always fully in communion and dialogue with the Father and Spirit. God, through Jesus “goes out completely” to sweep up prodigal humanity in his arms and restore to us the inheritance for which we were created.

Ratzinger observes that the Gospels set the time the soldiers pierced the side of Jesus to correspond with the time of paschal slaughter. This great outpouring of divine love for humanity, Ratzinger also observes, recalls God’s opening of Adam’s side. From Jesus, the second Adam, comes the source of life eternal, the life of creative love grounded in truth and Christ’s saving grace that fills us with true and lasting joy. Sharing God’s life means sharing in the life of the Trinity, being drawn into the dynamic of the relationship that is perfect love. For Ratzinger, the essence of the Trinity is the relationship itself.

In this life, that relationship is expressed most completely in the Eucharist. It is the very reality of Christ’s gift of saving, all-giving love, his body, blood, soul and divinity. For Ratzinger, the Eucharist needs “the breath of prayer”. Eucharistic adoration cultivates our relationship with Christ. Quoting St Augustine, “no one should eat this flesh without first adoring it”.

United with him in the adoring, rejoicing communion of the faithful on earth and in Heaven, makes Heaven itself, eternal life in Christ’s love, “already a hidden reality of this life”. When love is in full fruition, that is heaven.

In the world we are called to bring the joy of Christ to others. If we don’t experience it ourselves we cannot project or share it. Words alone are empty. At this time of renewal, as Pope Francis calls for the Church to participate as one in a process of synodality, Catholics need to understand what their faith really is and what it calls them to be and to do. For Ratzinger, faith and rationality go hand in hand. Every one, even an agnostic, has to decide whether to live as if God exists or he doesn’t. For Christians, “the rational principle of the Universe has revealed itself in love”. “The hidden expectation of every heart for joy” finds a definitive answer in Christ, the very embodiment of this principle.

But how equipped are Catholics to head off challenges from self-styled rationalists who insist faith starts from an irrational premise? How equipped are they to answer the questions of the young?  For Ratzinger faith is in harmony with rationality and needs it to grow. Without it, faith can slip into mere “religiosity”. Without proper instruction and formation in the faith and the rational arguments that support it, the Church “fails man’s deep-seated desire to know the truth”.

Preparing for the synodal process requires catechesis as well as prayer and an understanding of the parameters of the process. Catholic Christian faith is the faith of the Church across centuries from the time of Christ. It is ours to ponder and tease out ever more fully, particularly when we need to address the specific challenges of our own time. It does not belong to us any more or less than it belonged to previous generations. No one forum in a given place or era can change its tenets according to the spirit of their age. “Faith decided by ourselves is not faith at all.”

For Benedict, Church reform requires “holiness, not management”. The focus of any synod must be the creation of a more committed and authentic witness to Christ in the world. The great task of the Church is to bring the God of the Christian faith to the world, a God who dwells in love, who creates beings for love in his own image, whose care for us is that of a loving Father who “goes out completely” to reach us when we are lost and bring us back to him through the fire of the cross.

Msgr Joseph Murphy has opened up the theological thinking of Joseph Ratzinger in a clear, widely referenced and closely written volume of some two hundred pages. The freshness and penetration of the Pope Emeritus’ thoughts are well captured by the author. Msgr Murphy references Ratzinger’s many books, sermons and speeches bringing a profound and engaging overview of Joseph Ratzinger’s life’s work as theologian and pastor.

The profundity and subtlety of Ratzinger’s output is not appreciated as it deserves to be in a Church whose members at every level often think alignment with the spirit of the age is the way to the growth to which the Church is called. That case will be made and made loudly at upcoming synods. For those who believe our age is one in which Christians are called to resist and oppose and suffer, this book and the writings from which it draws offer perhaps the most compelling counterarguments.

Journeying with the writings of Joseph Ratzinger is intellectually stimulating, challenging at times, and helpful in dealing with attacks from relentless, proselytising, rationalist atheists. However, more importantly his output is faith enriching and spiritually inspirational and exudes the joy of the Gospel message. Books like Christ our Joy will, one feels, contribute in no small way to positioning Ratzinger where he belongs, among the highest echelon of the Church’s thinkers and writers.


Credit: Position Papers
  • Christ, Our Joy
  • Msgr Joseph Murphy
  • Ignatius Press
  • 2008
  • 216 pages



This article was first published in Position Papers

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