Rorate Caeli

Benedict XVI: A Personal Testimony - by Fr. Louis-Marie de Blignières, FSVF

Benedict XVI: A Personal Testimony

For almost half a century, Pope Benedict XVI offered to the Church, as his answer to relativism, selfishness and despair, a Christian epiphany of truth, unity and joy.

Fellow-worker with the truth

What is most striking about Benedict XVI’s life is how he always sought to open up the way of truth, to people living in our difficult modern times. He understood the challenges. He was fully aware of how the metaphysical range of the human intelligence had come to be neglected. He also perceived the decline of the theology of creation, a branch of theology that sees nature and the human body as a ‘message’ sent forth by the wisdom of God.

These were the considerations that guided him in his exposition of the doctrines of the faith, from his lectures on catechesis, given in Lyon and Paris in 1983, through to the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, and the Compendium, in 2005. This also explains why he insisted so much on the harmony of faith and reason, first of all in Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio, on which he collaborated with Pope John Paul II in 1992 and 2005, then in his talks at Regensburg and at the Collège des Bernadins in Paris, in 2006 and 2008, without forgetting the marvellous lecture that he gave at the Sorbonne in 1999 on Christianity as the religio vera.

We live in an age of hesitation and doubt, a time when Europe is drowning in nihilism. He spoke to this age and to this Europe about the enduring relevance of natural law, about respect for man and creation, and about the need to “make faith visible, as that for which the world is waiting, now that both the liberal experiment and the Marxist experiment have failed.”

I remember the day when I said to him that it was thanks to the love of truth that filled his books that I had been able to recover hierarchical communion; it seemed to me that he was touched by this. Thank you, Pope Benedict XVI, for having incarnated the love of the truth in a way that was so attractive, both for me and for many others. 

Artisan of unity

Benedict XVI was conscious throughout his life that unity is both a fruit and in a way a proof of the truth. He was equally concerned with the continuity of the Church’s magisterium, since this is the means by which the truth is kept secure. This is why, after the optimistic expectations of renewal at the time of the Second Vatican Council, he soon distanced himself from those who wanted to make the council into a ‘super-dogma’, and to use it to effect a revolution and a clean break with the past. This explains why he helped to found the journal Communio, in response to Concilium.

This concern for genuine unity was the light by which he was guided. It explains, in the first place his opposition as a theologian, and then as archbishop of Munich, to the los von Rom (‘the path, or estrangement, from Rome’). It explains also why he rejected, as an unprecedented rupture, the prohibition of the former liturgical rites: Benedict XVI was keenly aware that it is Catholic unity across time that guarantees unity in the faith. Then it explains his attempts to overcome false conceptions of the nature of the people of God, of relations with other religions, and of ecumenism — especially in the year 2000, with the Declaration Dominus Iesus. Then there was his desire, expressed on 22nd December, 2005, to interpret Vatican II according to a ‘hermeneutic of reform in continuity’. Again, we may thing of his struggle against the collapse of Christology. He read the Scriptures according to the analogy of the faith, and so understood that they do not speak of Jesus as a merely historical figure, but above all as ‘Son’, in the full metaphysical sense of the word.  And finally, in place of a ‘bureaucratic’ understanding of ecclesial communion, Benedict XVI recovered both an authentic sense of the true dignity of the mystical Body, and a filial piety toward the Church and her history.

I remember the day in July 1988 when, in company with those who would found the Fraternity of St Peter, I asked him if there was a place in the Church for priests who would never say the new rite of Mass and who would never cause a schism. He answered: “The hand that the Church offered to Archbishop Lefebvre is still there for those who want to take it.” Thank you, Pope Benedict, for having been for me, and for so many others, an artisan of unity in truth. 

Servant of our joy

A theme frequently present in Benedict XVI’s words was that of eternal life. He reacted against the reduction of eschatology to a utopian, ‘horizontal’ hope for a better world, for earthly peace seen as the highest good. Such a utopia has unfortunately now become “the real object of hope, and the main ethical criterion”, as he noted in a speech of 2nd May, 1989. He deplored the fact that “faith in eternal life barely features any more in preaching today”, and he saw this as liable to bring about “a radical reduction in the content of our faith.”

His whole ministry was like a song of hope for eternal life.Yes, he confronted contemporary cultural and political challenges, but he did so as a “servant of our joy”, to quote the definition of the Petrine ministry that he gave at his Mass of Enthronement. Our deepest joy is to be found in the kingdom of God; in mutual charity among Christians; and in the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, which are already the beginning of eternal life…

But Benedict XVI brought his own particular note to the service of Christian joy, namely, beauty: the beauty of the liturgy, of Christian art, and of the Christian life itself. By a courageous commitment to justice, he restored the rights of the age-old form of the Roman missal, in part because it “must be honoured on account of its venerable and ancient usage”, but also because of the beauty of this rite, so imbued with sacrality and favourable to adoration. “I had forgotten how greatly the prayers of this missal lead one to adore”, he once said, after he had celebrated this Mass within an Ecclesia Dei community.  

Speaking in Barcelona in 2010, he said : “Beauty is a revelation of God, because, a beautiful work is wholly gratuitous, as He is. It calls us to freedom, and delivers us from self-centredness.” He showed his love for the beauty of the Christian life by the way that he fought against all that stains the Church.  

He possessed a rare courage, always to tell the truth about evil and ugliness, from the famous Ratzinger Report of 1985 to the measures that he took against moral scandals in the Church, not forgetting his preaching at the Stations of the Cross in Holy Week of 2005. What gave him this courage? His deep awareness of the beauty of love; his tangible humility; his spiritual joy.

He knew that evil is never finally victorious. One cannot help applying to Benedict XVI some words of Pascal about Christ and the saints: “The saints have their own empire, their proper glory and victory, their proper fame. They have no need of fleshly or spiritual [in the sense of intellectual] greatness.  They are seen by God and by the angels, not studied by curious eyes or minds.  God is enough for them […] It would have been pointless for our Lord Jesus Christ to have come as a king in order to make manifest his holy reign.  What he showed in his coming was a splendour proper to himself.”

What then was the “splendour” proper to Benedict XVI? It was the splendour of truth in humility. He was like a lamb of God, who touched people’s hearts, by a greatness of mind joined to the delicacy of love. “Truth is unprovided with power, especially when it is noble.  […] The more noble a truth is, the more easily what is coarse may push it aside or heap scorn upon it; and it is forced to depend on the chivalry of the spirit.”

Thank you, Pope Benedict XVI, for having been for me and for so many others, a “lover of spiritual beauty”, and a servant of our joy.

Fr. Louis-Marie de Blignières

[Founder of the Fraternity of St. Vincent Ferrer, Chéméré-le-Roi, France]

(Translated by Fr. Thomas Crean OP)