When Joseph Ratzinger chose Benedict XVI as his papal name, commentators quickly and correctly pointed out its significance. And in the year since his election, the new pope’s actions have borne out many of those expectations. His warm meeting and dinner last September with Hans Küng—the embodiment of Catholic theological dissent—gave hope that like Pope Benedict XV, he would be a peacemaker in the church, helping to end years of internal strife. And like St. Benedict of Nursia, the pope has worked to foster a Christian culture capable of renewing church and world in an age of daunting threats. Deus Caritas Est, his first encyclical, is nothing other than an attempt to show to a skeptical modernity that God is not the enemy of human flourishing, but its very possibility and fulfillment.
Despite such telling hints, it is still too early to discern fully the shape of his pontificate. Benedict has shown himself fully committed to Christian unity, especially with the Orthodox and Eastern churches, but this sense of promise is still at its beginning. The long-term effects of the Congregation for Catholic Education’s instruction on the admission to seminaries of men with homosexual tendencies, which has been contentiously received in the church, remain unclear. Similarly, Benedict’s anticipated restructuring of the Roman Curia has yet to occur in full, while his episcopal appointments to date give little overt indication of his vision for church leadership. One awaits his replacements for upcoming retirements in such major American sees as Washington, D.C., and Detroit, as well as in Italy and Germany. In these and other ways, his tenure so far has been, to the surprise of some and the unease of others, dramatically undramatic.
And yet, if his pontificate remains embryonic, a clear portrait of the man has begun to emerge: Pope Benedict the abbot. If John Paul II was above all a witness, carrying the truth about Christ and humanity to all peoples and places, I suggest that Benedict can be summed up as an abbot concerned with leading his community to a deeper encounter with God through prayer and service. Where John Paul was a “sender,” concerned primarily with the church’s mission, Benedict is a “gatherer,” concerned primarily with its communion. Certainly the former pope had an unparalleled gift for bringing people together, and the present one has stressed that the church is inherently missionary. (In fact, working closely with Yves Congar, O.P., he drafted the first, foundational chapter of Vatican II’s “Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church.”) If communion and mission are inseparable—the diastole and systole of the church’s heartbeat—it nonetheless remains that the two popes emphasize complementary aspects of the church’s life.
In one sense, the image of Pope Benedict XVI as abbot should not be surprising, as both titles, pope and abbot, mean father. And the pope’s admiration for St. Benedict and the Benedictines is well known. On a deeper level, though, the Rule of St. Benedict tells us much about the pope’s vision of the church and of his ministry in it. Benedictine spirituality is perhaps the least spectacular of Catholic spiritualities. Where the Ignatian, for example, seeks the greater glory of God as a companion in Christ’s mission, and the Franciscan a radical identification with the poor and crucified Christ, the Benedictine encounters Christ above all in the routine of daily life. Rarely dramatic, it is a deep life, grounded in steady, prayerful attentiveness to God and in hospitable community.
The monastery, as the Rule famously describes it, is to be a “school for the Lord’s service”:
In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.
This entwining of moderation and zeal finds its complement in the Rule’s depiction of the abbot, who “holds the place of Christ in the monastery.” He is, literally, the vicar of Christ. Acting with discretion, the “mother” of all virtues, “he must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from.”
I do not know whether Pope Benedict has consciously shaped his ministry in light of the Rule’s vision of the monastery and its abbot, though I suspect he has, but I suggest three areas in which that heritage helps make sense of his pontificate: love for the person of Christ, leadership as listening and his interpretation of Vatican II as an experience of renewal in continuity with the past.
Love for the Person of Christ
The Rule calls the monks to “prefer nothing whatever to Christ,” a phrase that Pope Benedict quoted in his very first general audience. The key to his pontificate, indeed to his life, is found in this personalism. As both a theologian and a bishop, he has warned against a reduction of Christianity to morality, social activism or an intellectual system. The kingdom of God, he said in a homily delivered in February at St. Anne’s parish in the Vatican, is not a program, but the presence of God, above all in the person of Christ. Jesus is defined by his prayerful encounter with the Father, and we in turn are defined by our encounter with Jesus, who “takes us by the hand” in the gift of his word and sacraments and thereby shares his life with us. Thus, as the pope said in a weekly audience in February, Jesus’ disciples are called not to be “heralds of an idea, but witnesses of a person. Before being sent to evangelize, they would have to ‘be’ with Jesus (cf. Mark 3:14), establishing a personal relationship with him.”
The pope is calling us to encounter Christ anew in the quiet of prayer, in the risk of personal encounter, so as to give ourselves fully to the “one who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20, one of his favorite Scripture passages). The church, like a Benedictine “school for the Lord’s service,” is where one comes to know and love Christ in the liturgy, in the prayerful reading of scripture (lectio divina), in the ordinary, daily work of our lives. Its contemplation allows for a deeper, more expansive engagement with the world.
This call to communion with Christ helps account for his emphasis—at World Youth Day, at last October’s meeting of the World Synod of Bishops and in his homilies and addresses—on adoration and worship. Far from being a privatized, ethereal devotion, as some fear, adoration is a basic posture in life, an invitation to fall in love with Christ and to let that love bear fruit in everything that one does. One gazes at Christ like a parent at a newborn child or newlyweds at each other: delighting in the beloved’s presence, being still and often silent with each other, kneeling in gratitude and awe. Adoration must surely give rise to the service of neighbor, but that service will founder if it loses a sense of wonder before the one who loves us first.
Thus, as Benedict reminded his congregation on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, the Eucharist gathers the church in adoration, while sending it in “procession above and beyond the walls of our churches. In this sacrament, the Lord is always journeying to meet the world.” Communion issues forth in mission and that mission, as Vatican II put it, finds its “source and summit” in the Eucharist, in the worship of God and the sanctification of humanity. The goal, as the Rule says simply, is “that in all things God may be glorified.” “Without adoration,” Benedict said some years before his election, “there is no transformation of the world.”
Leadership as Listening
If Christ is the substance of Benedict’s pontificate, listening is its style. The first word of the Benedictine rule is “Listen,” and as the pope said in his installation homily, “My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole church, to the word and the will of the Lord.” The Rule extends this call in a specific way to the abbot, who is to listen first to Christ, but also to the entire community, even—or especially—to its most junior members, “for the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.” The abbot, like all monks, must listen with “the ear of the heart,” with his deepest being, to all through whom God speaks. It is telling, as John Allen reports in The Rise of Benedict XVI, that during the papal interregnum several cardinals felt that then-Cardinal Ratzinger heard them with a depth and familiarity that surpassed that of his predecessor.
While still a cardinal, the pope commended in the book-length interview published as God and the World the centrality of listening in Benedictine life. And as pope he has continued this emphasis in his reflections on the papal office. Last May, on taking possession of the chair of the bishop of Rome—the sign of his teaching authority—he said that the pope is “not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the church to obedience to God’s word.” Obedience, it should be recalled, means “listening.”
This intentional emphasis on listening has profound implications for the church and the world. Writing on the papal transition in The Atlantic (January/February 2006), Paul Elie lamented what he saw as the growing gap between the papacy’s increasing power within the church and its increasing irrelevance in the world. Pope Benedict, he wrote, was likely not only not to reverse this trend, but to accelerate it through his doctrinal fixity and attention to internal church matters. Perhaps, Elie suggested, the time was ripe “to turn away from the question of what the pope believes and consider just what it is that we believe.”
This, however, is exactly what Benedict is doing as pope. Lost in the media frenzy over his criticism of the “dictatorship of relativism” in his homily on the morning of the conclave’s opening was his call for an adult faith rooted in friendship with Christ. Only such maturity, he noted, can keep the believer from being blown about by ideologies and fads of every sort. Benedict appears determined that Catholics and others listen to Christ, not to himself. While mindful of his divinely willed ministry in the church, he seems intent on self-effacement, eschewing bold gestures and quietly focusing instead on the essentials—Christ, Scripture, the sacraments, service. Such foundations alone allow for a true maturity and depth in faith.
Interpretation of Vatican II
As the oldest religious order in the Western church, the Benedictines demonstrate that rootedness in the past makes possible the truest creativity. Their monasteries kept alive Western culture through centuries of dissolution, and, to borrow the title of the Benedictine Jean Leclerq’s book, have shown that the love of learning and the desire for God bring each other to completion. Monks like Lambert Beauduin and Odo Casel likewise helped pioneer the liturgical renewal that was confirmed at Vatican II. These Benedictines exemplified the dual movement of ressourcement (return to the often-neglected sources of tradition) and aggiornamento (updating in light of the signs of the times) that powered the council: reaching back to move forward.
The ongoing debate over the proper interpretation of Vatican II was at the heart of Benedict’s year-end address to the Roman Curia, which serves as a kind of papal State of the Union. He identified two main currents of interpretation: the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” and the “hermeneutic of reform.” The first school holds that “the texts of the council as such do not yet address the true spirit of the council,” since they are marked by compromises that “ke[pt] and reconfirm[ed] many old things that are now pointless.” The hermeneutics of reform, in contrast, affirms that only an emphasis on continuity of principles will bear fruit in true church renewal; real reform consists in applying unchanging principles to changing historical situations.
Although the pope’s strong emphasis in his address on the council’s continuity with previous church teachings—especially on religious freedom—was likely directed in part at reconciliation with followers of the late, excommunicated Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, he may have overstated his case. The church historian John O’Malley, S.J., writing in this magazine (2/24/2003) and elsewhere, has argued, simply and convincingly, that the council did not spend enormous sums of time and money and did not write hundreds of pages of documents simply to say, “business as usual.” The council, while remaining in assured continuity with centuries of tradition, nonetheless articulated in its very texts a new rhetorical “style” that expressed a decidedly different way of being church. But if Benedict’s depiction of the two competing hermeneutics needs to take fuller account of this genuinely discontinuous dimension of the council, he is nonetheless right that any such development can be properly understood only from within a broader matrix of continuity. Aggiornamento and ressourcement need each other.
A year into his pontificate, Benedict still worries some and angers others, who hear in him a repressive, even dehumanizing, voice on theological, cultural and sexual matters. It would be a tragedy for all, though, were such fears and criticisms to crowd out the invitation that he is offering—calmly and insistently—to Catholics and to all people: to see in Christ not the destruction of our happiness and freedom, but their only fullness. Among the Benedictine Rule’s first lines are, “What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us? See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life.” In the gentleness of his person and the quiet joy of his words, this pope-abbot is showing that we ignore that call to our own sadness.