Pope Benedict XVI: A Brief Protestant Requiem

I am grateful to the editors of Ad Fontes for the invitation to offer a short reflection on the significance of Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, for traditionally minded Protestants, on the occasion of his death. Perhaps it strikes some readers as odd that a self-identified evangelical Protestant, with sons named after Calvin, Latimer, and Cranmer should suggest that other similarly convinced Protestants should make Benedict their teacher. Even more odd that the suggestion should find its way into Ad Fontes. But these are odd days and they are going to get odder and darker yet. Now, as I believe, that Benedict has gone to his reward, we ought not to vilify him as no doubt the secular press will do. Even if we will not lionize him, as some traditionally minded Catholics invariably will, however, we must reckon with him.

I was introduced to Benedict when I was assigned The Spirit of the Liturgy as part of my formation for ordination. Much like Barth’s Romans was in the playground of the theologians, this book was a bomb for me. Formed from the cradle in revivalist evangelicalism, I had inherited some peculiar assumptions about worship–namely, that worship was for something: to induce a psycho-emotional response in the worshippers, to evangelize, to encourage, to feed. Moreover, the components that comprised the worship service could be selected or deleted, arranged or replaced for entirely pragmatic reasons, sometimes based on the ends just described, sometimes for less noble reasons. My later falling in love with the Book of Common Prayer, if it anchored me more deeply in the shared liturgical traditions of the Western church, did not challenge those assumptions. Even in my Anglican formation for ordination, worship remained a matter of taste. I expect it still does for many evangelicals.

Ratzinger revolutionized all of that. Worship, he taught me, was about God: gathering in the name of his Son and in the power of the Spirit to offer thanks and praise and to receive grace–indeed, to be so united to Christ through Word and Sacrament as to participate in the very life of God. Worship had a definite shape, an inner logic, determined by its true telos that could not be altered willy-nilly. Worship was not about engaging my emotions or evangelizing my friends. Worship in fact ran on its own time and paid no attention to the clock. It was to be beautiful. It was to be reverent. It had no referent outside itself and participated in nothing except that worship which was eternally ongoing in heaven.

From that explosive encounter on, Joseph Ratzinger slowly but surely displaced John Calvin and Karl Barth as the theologian to whom I first turned for catechetical preparation, sermons, and for the sheer love of reading theology. Ratzinger knew how to worship. Ratzinger knew how to think. And he did both with a heart full of the love of Jesus. That love dripped off every page.

Introduction to Christianity taught me how to be a catechist—a teacher of (good) theology. Teaching and Learning the Love of God reinforced my vocation to the presbyterate and challenged me in the tasks unique to the work of ordained ministry. Eschatology—how to prepare my people (and me) to meet the Lord in death. Prayer—how to be still in God’s presence, how to speak and how to listen. Daughter Zion—how to deepen my understanding of Mary in the New Testament by engaging with the Old Testament. The life of Jesus trilogy—the necessity and the limits of critical exegesis. Upon becoming the 264th successor to St. Peter, Benedict’s commitment to teaching continued. The documents—usually available in good English translation here–are well worth slow and charitable consideration.

I was once advised by a senior theologian that if I aspired to be a good theologian, I ought to apprentice myself to one both brilliant and holy. “Read everything they ever wrote!” he said. “And make sure they’re holy and not just brilliant.” Knowing this theologian to be very Reformed, I sheepishly admitted that I had already apprenticed myself to Ratzinger, by then Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Imagine my relief when I could almost see him smiling behind his keyboard as he typed, “Me, too.”

Why did Benedict speak so powerfully to me and to my friend? At first glance, an answer is not immediately forthcoming. After all, very few of his books are aimed at a general audience, let alone a Protestant one. More often than not, they are for the Catholic faithful and, more narrowly, for Catholic clergy. Furthermore, however much we might recognize in Benedict a fellow pilgrim deeply in love with Jesus, his thought presents much for the convinced Protestant to challenge.

But that’s precisely the point at which Benedict is so very valuable for us. We know we disagree with him and we know what we’re disagreeing about. We know this much because, across the Reformation divide, we equally believe in Truth with a capital T. With Benedict, we confess the reality of Revelation even if we have to argue with him over just what has been revealed. And that grants a certain foundation from which we can be open to surprising avenues of not only deepened mutual understanding but also agreement. This even as we daily move further from other Protestants for whom questions of truth and the revealed nature of Christian doctrine have been “sociologized” or “historicized” away. From the common commitment to the Truth, and to him who is the Truth, Benedict can and should become a teacher to many more Protestants.

So it is that I greet Benedict XVI’s death with sadness and gratitude. Sadness insofar as I have lost a teacher and mentor; I am convinced furthermore that the world has lost the most important public Christian intellectual of the last century (yes, more important even than Pope St. John Paul II). But gratitude also for the gift God gave in Benedict to the whole Church—not just to Rome, but to Geneva and Wittenburg, to Canterbury and Wheaton, too. God gave all of us a teacher who showed us that Christian faith was reasonable, that Christian hope was realistic, that Christian love could tell the truth.

O GOD, who by thy Holy Spirit hast given unto one man a word of wisdom, and to another a word of knowledge, and to another the gift of tongues: We praise thy Name for the gifts of grace manifested in thy servant Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and we pray that thy Church may never be destitute of the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Dr. Tim Perry (Ph.D, University of Durham) is Professor of Theology and Church Ministries at Providence University College and Theological Seminary. He is the editor of The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation (Lexham Press 2019).


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