by Benedict XVI
Ignatius Press 2009
reviewed by Raymond Dague
The prolific Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger has scored a hit with his short volume on Paul the Apostle. It is a wonder that this man at age 82 with all of the executive and sacramental duties necessary to run the Roman Catholic Church finds the time to teach and write as he does. I counted 48 books from his pen, but I might have missed a few. Many of his works were written years ago before he was pope, but several (including this one) were written as he balanced his duties as pope with his passion as a writer. Moreover both his lectures and his books demonstrate the mind of a theologian of the first order, and a man who at the same time is a simple disciple of Jesus teaching others the insights he has been given. This book is a prime example of Benedict in his role as a teaching disciple of his Lord.
One would expect to find the writings of a brilliant German theologian to be dense, dry, and slow to read–something which could substitute as a sleeping pill if read at bedtime. This book is anything but. It is interesting and simple with a flowing prose accessible to anyone. This short work of only 131 pages has no preface, no forward, no introduction, and no index; its only flaw. It could use these aids, and they will no doubt be added in later editions of this work.
The book is a straight-to-the-point discussion of the writings of the Apostle to the Gentiles, as Saint Paul is often described. Having written about half of the New Testament, and with a life chronicled in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is a figure with a substantial biblical record. Benedict makes him the subject of 20 lectures delivered to audiences at the Vatican from July 2, 2008 to February 4, 2009. Each talk, which he calls a Catechesis, is a single chapter in this book.
Rather than read this book though in a sitting or two (which could be done due to its brevity and easy style) I read one chapter a day during my morning prayer time, or in some cases, a second chapter in the evening. Unlike some of Ratzinger’s writings, it is not a theologically complex work. I found it is best read as a devotional with time for digesting the ideas. The book contains great insights into Paul, and is worth lingering upon rather than speed reading.
If one expects a Roman Catholic polemic from this pope, you are likely to be severely disappointed or delighted. Benedict is here teaching “mere Christianity,” as C. S. Lewis would say. Someone of any Christian perspective, be he Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, will find insight from Benedict’s teaching about what Paul the Apostle says. Benedict is not concerned here to promote distinctively Roman Catholic doctrine. Rather he develops Paul as an evangelist, one who was dramatically changed from a persecutor of the early Church and co-conspirator in the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, into a man driven by his intimacy with the living God to proclaim the Risen One to everyone willing to hear him. Paul was a man with a mission: to “preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Benedict is here a teacher to all Christians, and not just Catholics. For example Benedict in quoting Paul’s first letter to Timothy giving the instructions for church leaders repeats Paul’s qualification that bishops be “the husband of one wife.” One might expect a pope who institutionally enforces the requirement that bishops and clergy be celibate to somehow avoid this qualification, but not Benedict. He is intellectually honest in his discussion of Paul’s writings, even in places where one might expect a lesser writer to pull back so as to avoid pointing out apparent difficulties with Roman dogma. That is the distinctive and surprising thing about this book and many other writings of Benedict. He writes not as pope, but rather as a disciple of Jesus with great insight into Saint Paul. This is nowhere better illustrated than in his own words in the Foreword to another recent book of his, Jesus of Nazareth.
“It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord,’” writes Benedict. “Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.”
Such is the humility which this leader of the Roman Catholic Church carries to his readers. Truly he is a faithful disciple of the one whom he calls “the Risen One.” His profound insight into the mind of Saint Paul makes this a very worthy addition to any library.