Lessons from a holy father

Pope Benedict XVI, our 265th pope, died on Dec. 31, 2022 at the age of 95. During his life, he authored over 60 books and many articles and homilies. Having studied abroad in Rome during his pontificate, I grew to love the wisdom he shares in his writing, the glimmer in his eye, and the warmth of his smile. In honor of the great legacy he has left the Church, we are diving into “The Pope Benedict XVI Reader” (Word on Fire, $29.95).

Maybe papal encyclicals seem intimidating and hard to understand. If that’s the case for you, this collection of Pope Benedict XVI’s work might be just what you’re looking for. Inside its pages you will find bite-size and easy to digest excerpts from some of his finest work, including pieces from his books, interviews, papal audiences and more! You’ll hear his thoughts on topics like the liturgy, the Second Vatican Council and how we can find a way to live out our faith in today’s modern culture.

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The book is broken down into 11 interesting topics. Here is a glimpse.

1. Life

The book begins with an interview where Pope Benedict shares about his life from birth to his vocational discernment both into priesthood and his papal resignation. I love what he said when asked about his resignation and how one manages to carry out such a decision. He said something so simple, and yet so profound: “You talk about it extensively with the loving God. … I wasn’t fearful because I had an inner certainty that it had to be done, and that isn’t something you can be talked out of.”

2. God

When journalist Peter Seewald asked him about how the Judeo-Christian God can sometimes seem to be full of wrath, Pope Benedict spoke about how God is not one who dictates our actions but, rather, offers us freedom through free will: “Anyone who begins to live and grow away from God, who lives away from what is good, is turning his life toward wrath. Whoever falls away from love is moving into negativity.” This is what we perceive as “the punishment of God” because we strayed from the right path God intended for us, a path ultimately leading to peace and joy.

3. Jesus Christ

Early on in his pontificate, Pope Benedict wrote an encyclical titled Deus Caritas Est, meaning “God Is Love.” Here he writes about how Jesus is God’s love in flesh, sent to us for our salvation. Through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, a new life lies beyond us, one that moves past death and on to eternal life with God. A life that we can live now: “His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us.”

4. The Church

This section speaks to the importance of being a Christian witness in our world today. He writes, “Wherever God is not, hell comes into existence: it consists simply in his absence,” but wherever God is, “life becomes bright” even in our simple, everyday tasks of life. Being a Christian comes with the responsibility and mission to share the Gospel with everyone. We must let the Holy Spirit live and act within us. The Church becomes more fully herself through our acts of love and worship.

5. The Second Vatican Council

Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council in 1962. In opening this council he “declared that the main aim of it was to keep and to teach in the most efficient form the sacred consignment of Christian doctrine.” When interviewed about the state of the Church in 1985, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (before he was Pope Benedict XVI) said, “I am convinced that the damage that we have incurred in these 20 years is due, not to the ‘true’ Council.” He exhorts all Catholics “to return to the authentic texts of the original Vatican II … to defend the true tradition of the Church today means to defend the Council.” Vatican II did not abandon Church tradition nor change the Faith; it was intended to represent it in a more helpful way.

6. The Bible

In Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth” books, he writes about interpreting the Gospel with various methods, and the importance of understanding that some methods have their limits. In his 2010 apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini, “The Word of the Lord,” he teaches us how to find the “intrinsic unity” of the Bible by providing important insights into both the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture: “the old Testament is a prophecy of the New Testament; and the best commentary on the Old Testament is the New Testament.” But of course, reading Scripture must always be accompanied with a life of prayer and intimacy with Christ. He quotes from St. Ambrose: “When we take up the sacred Scriptures in faith and read them with the Church, we walk once more with God in the Garden.”

7. Liturgy, the sacraments and the priesthood

In his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, meaning “The Sacrament of Charity,” he speaks about priestly celibacy. He reaffirms “the beauty and the importance of a priestly life lived in celibacy as a sign expressing total and exclusive devotion to Christ. … Priestly celibacy lived with maturity, joy, and dedication is an immense blessing for the Church and for society itself.” He goes on to thank priests who have suffered and even given their lives in the service of Christ. He quotes St. John Vianney — a priest who would spend up to 16 hours a day in the confessional — who said, “Were we to fully realize what a priest is on earth, we would die: not of fright, but of love. … The priest holds the key to the treasures of heaven.”

8. Mary

Mary gave her free and total yes to the will of God when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. In one of his general audiences, Pope Benedict spoke about how “Mary trusts implicitly in the word that the messenger of God has announced to her, and becomes the model and Mother of all believers.” She continued giving her yes, even through great suffering, including her own son’s crucifixion: “It is the profound humility of the obedient faith of Mary, who welcomes within her even what she does not understand in God’s action, leaving it to God to open her mind and heart. … It is exactly because of this faith that all generations will call her blessed.”

9. The Church Fathers

I thought this section of the book might be dry, but it turned out to be one of my favorite parts, and I learned so much. For example, how St. Clement of Rome authored a work titled “Letter to the Corinthians,” which emphasized papal primacy, a piece which may have been the first work on papal primacy after the death of St. Peter. Other tidbits included how St. Ignatius is known as a “Doctor of Unity” for defending the Church as “catholic” and “universal,” St. Justin Martyr was an apologist who fought paganism, St. Irenaeus of Lyons fought against heresy, Origen of Alexandria devoted himself to the study of Scripture and longed for martyrdom, and St. Ambrose introduced lectio divina and emphasized an actual living of the Faith. There were so many fun facts in this part of the book. Early Church history trivia anyone?

10. Prayer

Man will always hunger for God, because he is inherently a religious creature. As the Catechism reads, “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God” (No. 27). Despite our desire being there, prayer can sometimes be difficult and feel dry, but it is simply in our approach to God that we begin to pray. As also it reads in the Catechism, “In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response” (No. 2567).

11. Faith in the modern world

Before being elected pope, Cardinal Ratzinger gave a warning about the dangers of relativism. He spoke of how “an ‘adult’ faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ.” In one of his papal audiences, he cautioned against practical atheism and its detachment from truth in finding the Faith to be irrelevant. When God is not the center of one’s life, man “loses his rightful place. … For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. We must entrust ourselves to our Creator.”

If you want to learn more about our dear Pope Benedict XVI, and learn more about our amazing Church history, this is the book to pull off the shelf.

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