A Pope’s Love of Writing


This week’s English-language release of Pope Benedict XVI’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth, was a historically unprecedented act — which, given the long history of papal precedents, in saying something.

The 350 pages of closely printed text are written in Benedict’s private capacity as the scholar-theologian Joseph Ratzinger. Popes generally don’t write books, and they don’t do so in their private capacity, offering only, as Benedict styles it, the fruit of long research and his personal “search for the face of the Lord.”

Pope John Paul II published one interview book and three partial memoirs while pope, but, as rich as they were, none were major theological works. And he only got around to book-writing after 15 years as pope, having already filled a long shelf with formal teaching documents. Benedict made this book the first priority of his pontificate.

Sources who were with Benedict on his first papal vacation in July, 2005, confirm that he spent almost the whole day, save for an afternoon excursion, at his desk writing. Most assumed that he was working on his first encyclical, but when asked to confirm that, the Holy Father replied that the encyclical could wait; he was striving mightily to finish this book, which he had begun in 2003.

In the foreword to Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict states that after his election as pope, he devoted all his “free moments” to the project. But popes do not really have free moments; the burden of the office is so great that the pope simply must decide what he will spend his time on. That Benedict decided to devote so much time to this book is therefore a deliberate pastoral decision. Why?

There is a simple enough answer: The Holy Father enjoys writing theological works and is the best there is at it. Just as John Paul realized early in his papacy that there was no one better than he at staging evangelical spectacles — whether his epic apostolic voyages or the World Youth Days — perhaps Benedict knows that he writes accessible theology, particularly of a scriptural kind, better than anyone else in the Christian world. And if God has seen fit to make him pope, perhaps that is what God wants the Pope to do.

The fact that Joseph Ratzinger is pope will mean that millions of people will now be exposed to the brilliance of his mind on the subject at the centre of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ. Pastorally speaking, that will have a greater impact than any encyclical he might write. While this is a book of serious Biblical and theological scholarship, it has a pastoral purpose. The shepherd intends this book to nourish the spiritual hunger of his flock.

The fact that Joseph Ratzinger is pope will mean that millions of people will now be exposed to the brilliance of his mind on the subject at the centre of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ. Pastorally speaking, that will have a greater impact than any encyclical he might write.

And hungry they are. One of the curious phenomena of recent decades is that, just as the Christian laity have been becoming better educated than ever before, the world of Biblical scholarship has been becoming less and less relevant to the ordinary person in the pew. The guild of Biblical scholars has become ever more self-absorbed, neglecting the person and figure of Jesus as they produce dry-as-dust dissertations on linguistic and historical details that obscure, rather than illuminate, the Gospel itself. When I took my seminary course on the writings of St. John, weeks were devoted to painstaking linguistic analysis of the original Greek, little time was given to John’s theological vision, and no time at all given to the fact that, say, St. Augustine had produced volumes of sermons on these very texts.

“Neither the individual books of Holy Scripture nor the Scripture as a whole are simply a piece of literature,” writes Ratzinger-Benedict. “The Scripture emerged from within the heart of a living subject — the pilgrim People of God — and lives within this same subject.”

Jesus of Nazareth strikes a liberating blow against the Biblical guild. RatzingerBenedict takes the guild to task for removing the people’s book from the faith of the people. He proposes instead that we read the scriptures as believers who “trust the Gospels” and seek an encounter with Jesus Christ in the fullness of his divinity, not, as one famous recent book was titled, as “a marginal Jew.”

Thomas Collins, the new archbishop of Toronto and a distinguished Biblical scholar in his own right, once told me that any member of the scholarly guild could take the scriptures apart; it was only the Christian believer who could put them back together again. When he was in Edmonton, Archbishop Collins dedicated one Sunday evening a month to doing just that in scriptural prayer in his cathedral. Benedict’s book is a global attempt to do the same thing: to salvage the life-giving figure of Jesus from generations of desiccated scholarship and skepticism.

“Jesus lives before the face of God, not just as a friend, but as a Son; he lives in the most intimate unity with the Father,” writes Ratzinger-Benedict. “We have to start here if we are truly to understand the figure of Jesus as it is presented to us in the New Testament; all that we are told about his words, deeds, sufferings and glory is anchored here. This is the central point, and if we leave it out of account, we fail to grasp what the figure of Jesus is really all about, so that it becomes self-contradictory and, in the end, unintelligible.”

It might seem rather obvious that Christian faith is required to fully understand the Christian scriptures, but in a world where gullible souls enroll in Da Vinci Code pilgrimages, it is necessary to begin again at the beginning.

Who should read Benedict’s new book? No doubt the scripture scholars will read this work, as it is evident that he has read their work. But it would be a shame if it remained within the guild. It is hardly a breezy beach paperback, but it is worth the effort. Even having read Ratzinger’s books for years now, I learned something new every few pages.

Had Joseph Ratzinger never been made a bishop, never been called to Rome, never been elected pope, he would have remained at his first love: teaching the fruit of his scholarship. With this book, the first of two planned volumes, Benedict has decided that he will do just that. His classroom is just bigger now.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "A Pope’s Love of Writing." National Post, (Canada) May 17, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2007 National Post

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