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4 kernels of wisdom from Pope Benedict XVI’s last message to the world

Pope Benedict XVI on April 21, 2007, in Vigevano, Italy. / Credit: miqu77/Shutterstock

Chicago, Ill., Dec 31, 2023 / 08:00 am (CNA).

A brilliant thinker and prolific writer, Pope Benedict XVI wrote 66 books in his lifetime. His final work, “What Is Christianity? The Last Writings,” was published in Italian on Jan. 20, just weeks after his death at age 95 on Dec. 31, 2022. Ignatius Press published the English translation of the book on July 17.

While the texts were originally written in German, Elio Guerriero, the Italian director of the theological journal Communio, translated them into Italian, which Benedict wanted to be the reference language. Guerriero had previously collaborated with Pope Benedict on other works.

In this last book, the pope addressed a number of important issues he had not touched on before. He also clarified and expanded his thoughts about various social and theological questions.

Pope Benedict XVI deliberately reserved the book’s publication for after his death, a decision that has drawn a lot of attention. He explained his reasoning in a letter quoted in the foreword of the book, writing: “For my part, I want to publish nothing more during my lifetime. The fury of the circles in Germany that are opposed to me is so strong that if anything I say appears in print, it immediately provokes a horrible uproar on their part. I want to spare myself this and to spare Christianity, too.”

Regarding the timing of its publication, Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, editor of Ignatius Press, told CNA that “Pope Benedict was very conscious that his resignation was unusual and could cause confusion. He did not want to appear to be setting up some sort of parallel magisterium. He was very discreet.”

The book is reportedly a sort of “last message to the world.”

“‘What Is Christianity?’ concludes the life and writings of one of the great churchmen of all time,” Fessio said. “It’s his last testament.”

The book’s foreword was written by Guerriero, who explained the purpose behind the publication: “The present volume is not just a collection of previously published texts with a few new ones added but rather a kind of spiritual testament written in a spirit of wisdom by a fatherly heart that was always attentive to the expectations and hopes of the faithful and of all mankind.”

With just six chapters, it is an accessible introduction to his work. Topics covered include “World Religions and the Christian Faith,” “Christian-Islamic Dialogue,” “Jews and Christians in Dialogue,” “The Catholic Priesthood,” and “The Meaning of Communion.” It also includes reflections honoring the lives of St. John Paul II and Jesuit Father Alfred Delp, a resistance fighter against Nazism.

“It’s not too deeply scholarly. Every article would be accessible to any educated person,” Fessio said. “Much of it is meant for the world, for everybody.”

Were there any surprises in this “last testament” of a great Church leader? Yes, Fessio said, but no more so than with Benedict’s other works. 

“I learn new things whenever I read him, but I expected that,” he said. “It’s a very eclectic book, with many enlightening contemporary insights. He shared what he thought was important to say.” 

Among the many kernels of wisdom in the book are the following:

1. St. Joseph’s silent wisdom

Benedict XVI held great affection for Christ’s foster father, for whom he was named, and tried very much to follow his example. In particular, he found that St. Joseph’s silence was a guide to wisdom for him.

He writes in the book: “[He] was given to me by my parents as a patron saint for life. The older I get, the clearer the figure of my patron becomes to me. Not one word of his has been handed down to us, but rather his ability to listen and to act. I understand more and more that his silence is precisely what speaks to us and, beyond scientific knowledge, wishes to guide me to wisdom.”

Later, the pope describes how St. Joseph is known through his decisive actions, since no word of his appears in Scripture. Repeatedly, God reveals a certain course of action to St. Joseph, and every time St. Joseph pursues that course immediately upon realizing it is God’s will. 

His life was a constant “yes” to God, his actions speaking louder than words ever could: As Pope Benedict XVI put it: “His silence is at the same time his message.”

2. Love and joy at the origin of missionary work

Pope Benedict XVI reflects in the book on what role missionary work has in today’s world, when interreligious dialogue often takes its place.

He wrote: “Joy needs to be communicated. Love needs to be communicated. Truth needs to be communicated. Someone who has received a great joy cannot simply keep it for himself; he has to hand it on. The same is true for the gift of love and for the gift of recognizing the truth that is manifested… Let us proclaim Jesus Christ, not in order to gain as many members as possible for our community, much less for the sake of power. Let us speak about him because we feel that we must hand on this joy that was given to us. We will be credible announcers of Jesus Christ when we have truly encountered him in the depths of our being, when, through the encounter with him, we have received the gift of the great experience of truth, love, and joy.”

3. The message of God’s mercy is greatly needed today

In a lengthy passage in the chapter called “Faith is not an idea, but a life,” the pope explains that modern man craves assurance of God’s mercy, something he calls a “sign of the times.” 

Referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan, he writes about how important it is “that men deep in their hearts expect that the Samaritan will come to their aid; that he will bend down to them, anoint their wounds, care for them, and carry them to safety.”

He wrote that St. John Paul II and Pope Francis both made mercy central to their message as popes: “Mankind is waiting for mercy… In the final analysis, they know that they need God’s mercy and his tenderness. In the hardness of a technological world where feelings no longer count for anything, nevertheless, there is a growing expectation of a saving love that is freely given.”

4. Reflections on Father Alfred Delp

Pope Benedict XVI has a personal connection to Jesuit Father Alfred Delp, who was martyred in Nazi Germany, and urges the faithful to “revive the memory of this great witness to Jesus Christ in dark times,” explaining Delp’s legacy in these words:

“Father Delp certainly could be killed in the body by the executioners of the time, just as his hands could be chained, but the word of God is not chained and speaks to us again and again precisely through the bloody testimony of the martyrs. May the Lord help us, in our time and in the way that we ask, to be witnesses to Jesus Christ once again.”

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