American Catholics remember Benedict XVI’s singular brilliance, love for beauty

Benedict Photo Gallery Visit to the United States - April 15- 20, 2008 | Vatican Media

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who died Dec. 31, was remembered as “brilliant,” yet “humble” and “warm” in a discussion yesterday with some of America’s most notable Catholics. 

“Even if he had never become pope,” said Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, “[Benedict XVI’s] legacy would have been the legacy of one of the great theologians that the Church has ever had.”

Glendon made her remarks as part of a panel on Benedict’s legacy moderated by Kathryn Jean Lopez of the National Review Institute (NRI) and hosted by the NRI, Catholic World Report, and Ethics and Public Policy Center on Thursday.

The connection between truth and beauty

According to Glendon, Benedict had the gift of “communicating without dumbing down.” An important facet of Benedict’s philosophy, Glendon said, was his belief that more people have been brought to Christianity by the saints and by beauty than by theological writing. “I think that is true,” Glendon said, “and I think it reveals something very important about Pope Benedict — his own love of beauty.” 

Father Joseph Fessio, founder and editor of Ignatius Press, went so far as to say, “I compare his writings to John’s Gospel … it’s the easiest reading in the New Testament … but it’s also the most profound.”

Fessio is not only the primary English-language publisher of Benedict’s works through Ignatius Press, but he was also a student of then Professor Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. 

Being in a group theological discussion with Ratzinger, Fessio said, was “like being in a symphony … all these instruments are playing and then he, as a conductor, suddenly brings them all together in the grand finale.”

“Contrary to the public image that is still being promoted out there, he’s gentle, he’s kind, he’s warm,” Fessio said. “I don’t think you can read his writings without sensing the deep humility and simplicity of this man; you don’t get the idea of some harsh self-enclosed integralist critic.” 

Was Benedict truly “God’s rottweiler?” 

By reading Benedict’s writings, “any idea that he was a reactionary or ultra-conservative gets blown up,” said Francis Maier, a senior fellow at the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

Though Benedict had a “razor-sharp clarity in his intellect,” to Maier it was the “connection of truth and beauty (that) was really very powerful in Ratzinger.”

“You can’t understand him simply as a brain. You have to understand him as a person who had a real capacity for love and expressed that through his own deep connection with beauty,” Maier said. 

Ratzinger made hope believable’ 

“You read him and there’s a profound realism about the hardship that the Christian life can be in the world but also hope,” Maier said. “Ratzinger made hope believable.”

Maier explained that Benedict “belonged to a generation … that went through this furnace of the Second World War and the atheist theologies which give people plenty of reasons to despair and he never did, he came out of that with a renewed hope and an absolute confidence in Jesus Christ.” 

Young people naturally connected with Benedict even though he was quieter and more reserved than Pope John Paul II, Fessio said. His message resonated with young people, Fessio said, because youth today “are looking for answers; they’re confused in a world full of fake news and advertising, full of all kinds of distractions and temptations.” Meanwhile, Benedict was someone who could “speak to their heart.” 

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Criticism and controversy 

When it came to the role of women in the Church, Glendon said: “I think that the historical record will make very clear that he was not only comfortable with women, women theologians, and women leaders in the Church but that he took certain steps that were truly remarkable.” 

“One of the reasons he was criticized … was precisely because he was intelligent,” Maier said. “If you’re a religious person, you’re supposed to be stupid on some level, because that fits with the script.” Instead of fitting into the stereotype, Maier said, Benedict had a “world-class intellect” and was completely comfortable contending with the world’s top, unbelieving intellectuals. 

Yet, his answers during debates were never hostile, self-promoting, or aggrandizing but directed at finding the truth, Fessio said. “He was always trying to find the truth. He was really a truth seeker.” 

When it came to his resignation, Glendon said that Benedict “was showing us what prayer really is.” Benedict showed the world that prayer requires you to “actually follow what God’s will is for you, even though, probably, the world thinks it’s insane.”

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