CHOICE OF BOOKS: “On Love” highlights how Pope Benedict XVI has consistently brought the word of God to his flock in a thoughtful way.
By Joseph Ratzinger / Pape Benoît
Ignace Press, 2021
215 pages, $ 15.95
“I knew you were going to say that.”
These words are not immediately obvious as a compliment. Indeed, they could be interpreted (or intended) to mean that you are predictable, mundane… always saying the same thing… a one-trick pony.
But this phrase can also be seen (and unwittingly intended) as a compliment. He expresses the quality of a good leader, and especially of a good priest or bishop, namely that he is predictable, not capricious. When people can “predict” what he will say or do, it means he is living in a consistent manner and behaving fairly towards all of his people. He is consistent in what he says, how he acts and how he treats people.
It occurred to me while reading On love, Last collection of homilies by Joseph Ratzinger by Ignatius Press. Not that I knew everything he was going to say, of course. Rather, I mean that there are no surprises in his remarks. These homilies are consistent with everything he has taught for decades. And that’s a good thing to say about a priest and a bishop.
The homilies included in this small volume cover the years 1970 to 2003 (therefore all from Father and Bishop Ratzinger, none from Pope Benedict), his stay in Germany and Italy, and all kinds of congregations (in cathedrals, parishes , monasteries, convents). They show his clear and consistent teaching over many years as priest and bishop – years which have been at the same time among the most confusing and unpredictable for the Church.
The book organizes his homilies not chronologically but by liturgical season, an order which only underscores the consistency of Ratzinger’s thought and teaching. If the book did not provide the date and location of the homilies, you would be hard pressed to locate the year of each. This is the consistency of thought that Joseph Ratzinger has shown throughout his priesthood.
Better still, the sentence of Saint Augustine “Always old, always new” captures the meaning one has when reading this compilation. The homilies are “always old” because Ratzinger is always inspired by the Tradition of the Church. He is not interested in inflicting intelligent ideas or revolutionary theology on the People of God. On the contrary, like a good father, he wants to bring the eternal teaching of the Church to the children of God here and now. He wants to pass on their own heritage to them.
The homilies are “still old” also because he keeps returning to certain themes of his ministry: the eyes of the heart, the sense of freedom, the mixed blessing of technology, the fear of God as a competitor, the loss of respect for God as Creator… and so on. His return to certain themes is not that he is constrained in his thinking, but that he knows what the people of his time need to hear.
At the same time, these homilies are “always new”. They are never dry reflections on Scripture. He never just repeats himself. He always applies the scriptures to a specific situation, putting the word of God to work in a particular setting and / or occasion.
Indeed, it is the correct understanding of “always new”. When clerics make things “relevant,” it is usually to the detriment of the integrity of scripture and doctrine. In Church parlance, “relevant” generally means brand new, new, different from before. So, it also means limited in time and soon irrelevant. Only that which is rooted in eternity can truly be “ever new”.
The homilies show that Ratzinger (contrary to his reputation) is not only a great spirit but a great pastor. He knows both the depth of Tradition and how it is to be applied to a congregation or to a particular occasion. Even an event as mundane as the blessing of the tractors provokes great reflection in him. On such an occasion, most of us would collapse into platitudes. But Ratzinger takes the opportunity seriously and speaks wonderful words about the meaning of creation and of man’s cooperation with the Creator.
He always shows a deep respect for every group he addresses, for the various devotions and occasions. From the above words to the farmers, to his reflection at Fatima, to his summary of the life and spirituality of Saint Josemaría Escriva, he always shows respect for the people and the occasion of his preaching.
On love of course contains some excellent lines and turns of phrase that we would expect from Ratzinger: “Freedom is the daughter of grace. … When we forget God, things become silent. … A civilization without contemplation cannot last long. As with Chesterton, its lines can stand on their own. But they have even more impact when we read them in context and see how it achieves it.
It is an excellent spiritual reading for the laity and the clergy. But the clergy in particular will benefit not only from the content, but also from the style.
Here is another set of lessons on how to preach, how not to neglect the scriptures or the people in our preaching, how to achieve this happy marriage of the word of God and his children.