About a year ago, Pope Benedict XVI
chose the topic of love for his first
encyclical. Now we are seeing the first
of two books about Jesus. Once again,
Pope Benedict is proving not to be so
much the “circle up the wagons” leader
that some feared, but rather a deeply
This new book is a project that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had hoped to
finish after concluding his term as head
of the Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith. But the Church, led by the
Spirit, had other plans. He found a way
to squeeze in writing time anyway, and
divided his Jesus writing project into
halves to move things into print faster.
The first book, released in the United
States by Doubleday some weeks ago, is
Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in
the Jordan to the Transfiguration.
The topic of Jesus, especially in light
of new approaches to Scripture scholarship
and historical studies, has garnered
much popular attention in recent
decades. Joseph Ratzinger the theologian,
even before he became pope,
wanted to weigh in on the debate.
The Bible 'in Today's Context'
The pope realizes the Church needs
to hear and proclaim a bold, simple
message about Jesus. In a late-April
audience, at the time his book was first
released in Europe, he told those gathered
that he followed a three-pronged
approach to catechesis inspired by
Origen (185-254), a Church Father.
Following this approach, Benedict
says that he tried to highlight what
the Bible says about Jesus, the moral
principles of his teaching, and how
reading the Scriptures can lead to a
real relationship with Jesus—all “in
Benedict also says Origen made a
great contribution by teaching us that
prayerful reading of Scripture is to be
combined with concrete application
of the fruit of our prayer in daily life.
Before saying anything else, it seems
helpful to note that the pope stressed
that this book is not “magisterial” in
nature—his conclusions are not authoritative
Church teaching, but rather are
open for review and theological debate.
That may be easier said than done.
He's the Pope
One need only remember Regensburg
where, last September, the pope made
a comment about Christian-Muslim
relations that reverberated violently
worldwide for months. Joseph
Ratzinger the theologian has a much-amplified
voice as Pope Benedict XVI.
Also, within the past few years, he has
taken corrective action against a number
of theologians and Catholic journalists.
Critics of this book may want to
debate him publicly.
Nonetheless, a few comments are in
order. First, we applaud the pope for
continuing this “back to the basics”
approach in his teaching. Topics such
as love and Jesus help us to remember
what the Church is most deeply about.
This book, though, which surely will
sell by the droves in shopping malls
across the land (admittedly less than
the Harry Potter sequel), is not easy reading.
In a scholarly way, Benedict takes
his rightful role as a German theologian.
He counters some of the widely
influential German intellectuals who
have shaped modern biblical criticism
and our understanding of the person of
Jesus. If the reader is somewhat familiar
with these debates, the book is a
Novices, however, may find themselves
skimming from section to section,
searching for inspirational nuggets
in the midst of textbook-like prose.
That’s not to undercut the book’s
importance. Perhaps the most important
message of the book, one which
the pope defends as a scholar, is that,
contrary to many scholars’ published
opinion, Jesus was not merely a moralist,
or merely a social reformer, not just
the “historical Jesus” to be distilled from
Gospel accounts, apart from his
Church. Rather, Jesus is truly the “Christ
of faith,” the Son of God. Benedict
spends much of 355 pages showing, in
theological argument, the excesses and
mistakes of his fellow scholars.
Then there are the nuggets. They appear
from time to time among his comments
on the Temptations, Beatitudes
(including the humility of St. Francis of
Assisi), the Lord’s Prayer, the Bread of
Of special interest to St. Anthony Messenger readers might be the pope’s comments
on Francis. “The saints are the
true interpreters of Scripture,” says the
pope, who uses Francis’ devotion to
humility and poverty as a way to
explain the meaning of the first beatitude,
“For Francis, this extreme humility
was above all freedom for service, freedom
for mission, ultimate trust in
God....” Benedict also highlights the
value of the Secular Franciscan Order in
blending the commitments of life in
the world with the depths of faith.
In another section the pope, in
putting the Christ of faith next to all
manner of theories about the historical
Jesus, puts a deep question to all believers:
If we had to choose today, between “a Messiah who leads an armed struggle,
promises freedom and a kingdom
of one’s own, and this mysterious Jesus
who proclaims that losing oneself is
the way to life,” how would we choose?
In the pope’s words, would “Jesus of
Nazareth, the son of Mary, the Son of
the Father, have a chance? Do we really
know Jesus at all? Do we understand
him? Do we not perhaps have to make
an effort, today as always, to get to
know him all over again?” What better
question could a pope ask?—J.F.