Given that so many fine pieces on the life, writings, and legacy of Pope Benedict XVI have already appeared throughout the internet (see here and here, but I could list many others), and not wanting to add less eloquent and insightful words these pieces, I thought I would approach the subject of Pope Benedict’s passing to our Lord from a more personal perspective.
I was first made aware of the presence of then-Cardinal Ratzinger while he served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) - now called the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith – from 1981 to 2005. It was as a graduate student that I first encountered his writings, which began with the CDF publication of Dominus Iesus. This lead me, with recommendations by a particular professor-mentor, to an exploration of many of his writings which, because of his role at the CDF, were conveniently being translated into English from his original German. In particular, it was clear to me after reading his Introduction to Christianity that Cardinal Ratzinger was the greatest living Catholic theologian. I relate this background simply to highlight that, by the time he was elected to the Chair of St. Peter, I was already a great admirer of his work. His election then, for me, was quite meaningful and, one might even say, touching. Here I was, a graduate student in theology witnessing the first papal election of my lifetime (Well, conscious lifetime. Let’s not dwell on dates), and – in their wisdom – the conclave elected a theologian to whose work I was deeply attached. It was quite a moment.
Given the prodigiousness of his writings, some theologians and scholars have weighed in on their favorite work by Pope Benedict; this fine article is a great example. But what I’ve found missing among many of these lists is mention of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, which he issued as pope in 2009. Of course, the reason for the omission is that this document is not a theological work per se. Rather, Anglicanorum Coetibus provided for the establishment of Personal Ordinariates, i.e., the equivalent of dioceses, for those wishing to come into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church from the Anglican Communion (Boston’s community can be found here). Through this constitution, entering into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church is made easier by allowing for “liturgical celebrations according to the liturgical books proper to the Anglican tradition, which have been approved by the Holy See, so as to maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared” (AC III.). In this way, Pope Benedict XVI has not only edified and impacted people’s faith with his theological writings but, in a real and concrete way through this Constitution, facilitated their communion with the Body of Christ and fostered the unity of the Church herself.
One may inquire as to why Pope Benedict XVI thought it important that, with the approval of the Holy See, those coming into full communion with the Catholic Church be able “to maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion.” Even further, one may ask why – even though the liturgy and sacraments were not Pope Benedict’s specific area of study – he showed such concern for them in his scholarly work and during his pontificate. His The Spirit of the Liturgy, for example, is widely considered one of his masterpieces. The answer to these questions, I think, is quite simple: it is in and through the liturgy and sacraments that we encounter the person of Christ. As Pope Benedict famously wrote in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est: “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” (1). Elsewhere, in the apostolic letter Sacramentum Caritatis, he quotes St. Augustine and refers to his theology of the totus Christus, the whole Christ, who we encounter in the Eucharistic liturgy. “‘The bread you see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. The chalice, or rather, what the chalice contains, sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ. In these signs, Christ the Lord willed to entrust to us his body and the blood which he shed for the forgiveness of our sins. If you have received them properly, you yourselves are what you have received.’ Consequently, ‘not only have we become Christians, we have become Christ himself’” (36). In short, Pope Benedict loved the liturgy because, as his final words attest, he loved Jesus Christ. “Signore, ti amo.”