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‘Jesus of Nazareth’: The Key to Knowing Benedict

The body of Pope Benedict XVI lies in St. Peter's Basilica for public viewing at the Vatican Jan. 2, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

(OSV News) — Since Pope Benedict’s death at age 95 on Dec. 31, much ink has already been spilled detailing both his accomplishments and failures throughout his long life of service to the church. In the end, though, all the coverage boils down to one question: “Who was the real Pope Benedict XVI?” While it will be the task of subsequent centuries to measure the full scope of the late pope’s legacy, we might make a fruitful start by considering it through the lens of his bestselling “Jesus of Nazareth” series.

It is no secret that Benedict was a first-rate scholar, and the depth of the series lays this bare. Not only was Joseph Ratzinger one of the most intellectually gifted men to occupy Peter’s chair, but he was also one of the most important theologians in the Church’s recent history, and he made good use of his pen to teach, too. The gifted, skilled and clear writer authored more than 60 published books.

Benedict bequeathed to the church many rich texts as part of his papal magisterium, which largely focused on the basics, although his theological acumen could zero in on the most intricate of theological questions. Think of his encyclicals on the theological virtues.

This was also true of the “Jesus of Nazareth” series. This scholarly and pastoral project, to which he committed finishing as pope though as a private theologian, focused entirely on the person and mission of Jesus Christ.

In 2003 — two years before his election as pope — then-Cardinal Ratzinger started work on what developed into the three-volume series. A lifetime of scholarship and research, meditation and prayer, dialogue and inquiry is summed up in its pages, and the breadth and depth of Benedict’s faith and spiritual intellect is on full display therein. Readers catch a glimpse into his scholarly mind, to be sure, but also get a sense of Benedict’s pastoral priorities and interior depth as a disciple.

Effective in employing his scholarship as a pastor, Benedict masterfully connects the dots of a sweeping array of authors and sources, offering an entirely unique and comprehensive reading of the Bible and understanding of the church’s faith in Christ. The end product is a summary of Christian understanding of the Savior, filtered through the heart and mind of a man who breathed love of the Lord, to his very end.

It is said that the books absorbed whatever free time he had for many years, and not without the misgivings of some in the curia, who criticized the studious pope for the attention he gave to this extra writing during his pontificate. It seemed to them a distraction from the duties of governance, but Benedict saw the project as an urgent obligation and concern.

While Christian theology has trended in recent years toward deconstruction, especially as regards the historical Jesus, Benedict sought to build and reconstruct. The motivation of his mission was simple: to make Jesus Christ known and loved, and to invite others to a renewed and deepened relationship with him.

For Benedict, it’s clear: The very life of the world depended upon knowing the Lord as Truth — not as an idea but as a Person. This meant for Benedict that Jesus was not a mere historical figure meant to be analyzed, but a living person ready to be encountered. Nor was Jesus just some political or social revolutionary, but the Son of God made man. All else flowed from this.

Like St. Paul, Benedict was handing on what he himself had received — what he himself had found through prayer, study and his own personal relationship with Christ Jesus. As he wrote in the first volume, the “Jesus of Nazareth” books contained his “personal search ‘for the face of the Lord.’” The living Jesus becomes reality to the reader, page by page, through the pen of a man truly alive in Christ. It was Christ who lived in him; it was from Christ that he received his very self, which he offered back in love. It was Christ who ordered, guided and led him. It was Benedict’s own life with Jesus, shared in these books.

And so it is clear that the trilogy is more than mere scholarly pursuit. It is the revelation of an intimate and lifelong encounter with a friend, imbued with the fruits of untold hours of contemplation. The man who often showed little concern for himself introduces readers to his Lord and Savior, his discovery of the pearl of great price. According to his biographer, Peter Seewald, Benedict observed that working on the books was “like constantly drawing water from the depths of the sources.”

The “Jesus of Nazareth” series gives the most realistic and lasting glimpse into who Benedict XVI really was, beyond all the narratives: the brilliant mind who pursued Christ all his life, who came to know him as a friend, and who served him as a pastor driven to help others love him more. These works will be at the crux of any attempt to understand the interconnection of Benedict’s scholarly mind, his pastoral solicitude and his spiritual depth — because these above all else, belonged to Christ, and defined his mission, informed his pastoring and shaped his character.

If one’s last words before slipping from this earth might be any indication of who he or she really is, then it is no wonder that Benedict’s have been reported to be “Lord, I love you!” What better thing to say? What better to have lived? What better to have left behind as a written legacy?

Michael R. Heinlein is author of the forthcoming “Glorifying Christ: The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I.”

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