Pope Benedict XVI once observed, wryly, that one clear sign of the Church’s divine origins was that faithful Catholics kept coming to Mass despite hearing dreadful preaching, Sunday after Sunday. One wonders whether the priests to whom he made this remark blushed, externally or in the privacy of conscience.
No one ever heard a dreadful homily from Pope Benedict XVI, the greatest papal preacher since Gregory the Great in the sixth century. Indeed, it’s not impossible to imagine that, a hundred years from now, the Office of Readings in a reformed Liturgy of the Hours will include several selections from the homilies of “Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI,” as the current breviary includes selections from “St. Gregory the Great, pope.”
Benedict XVI’s luminously clear and theologically rich homilies were the product of a singular intelligence wedded to great learning, even as they were ultimately grounded in, and expressed, a deep faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. No preacher of his generation knew the Christian theological tradition as well as Joseph Ratzinger; few, it seemed, had absorbed themselves with the word of God in holy Scripture as intensely as the man who became Benedict XVI.
In his preaching (as in his book-triptych, “Jesus of Nazareth”), Pope Benedict harvested what was worth reaping from a modern, historical-critical study of the Bible while filtering that learning through a theological reading of the Old and New Testaments. Unlike homilists who foolishly preach straight out of the historical-critical playbook—this doesn’t happen; that’s just a myth—Ratzinger’s homilies did not leave his listeners feeling as if the biblical text had been dissected into shards and fragments, like the detritus on an autopsy room floor. Rather, he invited congregants into a deeper encounter with the text by acknowledging the contributions of modern historical-critical analysis while showing how those methods, properly deployed within their own limits, can become part of a nobler, richer, more spiritually enlarging exposition of the deep meaning of Scripture.
Pope Benedict XVI preached out of the conviction that the Bible is a living text, not a dead artifact—the living word of God in human words, as Vatican II taught. And that made all the difference.
His models, it seems, were the Fathers of the Church, to whose theological works he once dedicated an entire cycle of general audience addresses.
Contemporary homiletics “experts” and preaching gurus typically pay little attention to the Fathers and their expository method of unpacking the biblical text so that its interior, spiritual meaning is brought to light. Jokes, amusing stories, therapeutic prescriptions—all of these, it’s often suggested, are essential parts of the 21st-century homilist’s kitbag, because preachers today address congregations exposed daily, even hourly, to the siren-songs of popular culture. (Evidently the thought rarely occurs that worshippers are looking for relief from the vulgarities of pop culture, not for a flaccid imitation of it.)
Ratzinger’s preaching never indulged in such nonsense. There were no tricks, no stories, no jokes and no psychobabble. He treated his listeners as adults who had a baptismal right to hear the word of God expounded in accord with the symphony of Catholic truth. Thus his preaching combined serious, scholarly exegesis or analysis of the biblical text with solid doctrinal instruction, such that the Bible opened up into the Catechism while the Catechism helped unpack the fuller meaning of the Bible.
And he did all of this with breathtaking simplicity. When I was interviewing then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for “Witness to Hope,” the first volume of my biography of John Paul II, I had the impression, which I first thought was an aural illusion, that he answered my questions in complete paragraphs. Yet when I came to transcribe the tapes of our conversations I found that he did, indeed, think and speak in complete paragraphs. That same skill was evident in Benedict XVI’s preaching, which achieved the noble simplicity and accessibility that can only be an expression of rock-solid faith, purified (and indeed radicalized) by deep and broad learning and by prayer.
It was the simplicity that only comes on the far side of complexity. And it set a model for every deacon, priest, and bishop in the Catholic Church to follow, both during his pontificate and long beyond.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. Mr. Weigel’s syndicated Catholic press column, “The Catholic Difference,” is the most widely circulated Catholic press column in the country, reaching a combined readership of some two million persons each week.