Benedict and Francis: A Lesson in Apostolic Continuity

The differences between the two men give witness to the different gifts of the same Holy Spirit

Retired Pope Benedict XVI greets Pope Francis at the Vatican May 2. The 86-year-old retired pontiff

Retired Pope Benedict XVI greets Pope Francis at the Vatican May 2. The 86-year-old retired pontiff, who had been staying at the papal summer villa in Castel Gandolfo since retiring Feb. 28, returned to the Vatican to live in a monastery in the Vatican Gardens. (CNS photo/L'Ossevatore Romano via Reuters)When Pope Francis visited his predecessor at Castle Gandolfo in March, he said to Benedict XVI that “we are brothers.” This image nicely frames the differences between them. It underscores that the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was not a rupture in the Church (as some suggest) but an unexpected lesson in apostolic continuity.

Specifically, both men have illuminated from different perspectives the relation between the primacy of God’s offering of grace in the liturgy of the altar and subsequent encounters of man and neighbor in the liturgies of love in everyday life. While Pope Benedict most often stressed the encounter of God with man—which then calls for and makes possible authentic encounters with neighbor—Pope Francis has stressed man’s interactions with each other, which allows us to bring Christ to a world despairing in atheistic politics and individual spiritualities.

These and other forms of despair are well known to both men. Joseph Ratzinger witnessed it in the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and the brutality of Communist and other explicitly secular regimes. Jorge Bergoglio witnessed it in the poverty and politics of Argentina. He has also echoed Benedict XVI’s concern over a “dictatorship of relativism.”

Providentially, both men share particular theological remedies for all this. In his autobiography Milestones, Ratzinger calls attention to the writings of theologians like Henri de Lubac—the twentieth century Jesuit that is also appreciated by Pope Francis. Ratzinger recalls his delight in de Lubac’s expression of Catholicism as a “social faith, conceived and lived as a we—a faith that, precisely as such and according to its nature, was also hope, affecting history as a whole, and not only the promise of a private blissfulness to individuals.”

Today, Pope Francis is demonstrating the power of these words. He has offered stunning visuals that have captivated international audiences. And he exhorts the faithful to love likewise. In his March 27th General Audience, he said that “[f]ollowing and accompanying Christ, staying with him, demands ‘coming out of ourselves’, requires us to be outgoing; to come out of ourselves, out of a dreary way of living faith that has become a habit, out of the temptation to withdraw into our own plans which end by shutting out God’s creative action.”

Some who cheer these words groaned eight years ago when the College of Cardinals elected Joseph Ratzinger to succeed Pope John Paul II. Those who complained the loudest seemed unaware that a young Fr. Ratzinger had been criticized by theological advisors for harboring a “dangerous modernism” or that he had been an advisor at the Second Vatican Council. Given such unfamiliarity, it was no wonder that Pope Benedict XVI surprised a great many when he began speaking of love, charity, and the vibrant, graced relationships that are necessary to improve the way we run our economies and steward our ecosystems.

Pope Benedict rooted such goals in the historical continuity of the Church’s unchanging teachings—such as the proclamation that God is love. In doing so he stressed the reality of objective truth. He underscored that this truth cannot be separated from love or beauty because the truth of which he spoke is the Source of all love—it is the Truth that created the human soul and so can stir it like nothing else.

The pope emeritus routinely stressed that the central arena for this stirring is the intersection of divinity and humanity that occurs in the Church’s liturgies, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist. This liturgical emphasis can be found especially in how he unpacked statements from the Second Vatican Council. (For more on Ratzinger/Benedict XVI and the Second Vatican Council, see Tracey Rowland’s piece in CWR, “Benedict XVI and the End of the ‘Virtual Council.’”) In seeking to guide the Church’s reception of the Council, one of Benedict XVI’s goals was unity within the Church and among all Christians. He did so, of course, remaining true to the apostolic teachings that had been handed to him for his care, teaching, and delivery to his successor.

Pope Benedict appears to have modeled his efforts for unification on St. Bonaventure, who in the thirteenth century took the reigns of a fragmented Franciscan Order, which held a rather exuberant faction that championed a new age of the Holy Spirit, one that had no need of the Cross. Bonaventure sought not a mere academic correction to this error but a pastoral offering of full communion for those who were flaunting orthodoxy.

Pope Benedict did much the same. He was often opening doors for those who stood outside the Church and he encouraged the faithful to do likewise. Hence came his urging for a New Evangelization—for teaching and reminding the world of the presence of God among them.

In his call to evangelize, Pope Benedict appreciated the value of humanity’s cultural differences and how these differences intersect with ecclesial expressions, especially the Mass. Grace, after all, seeks to encounter every age and place. While mindful of such diversity, Pope Benedict was nevertheless confidant that liturgical celebrations required certain elements—like beauty—that point one to the transcendent.

In his 2007 exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict noted that the beauty of the liturgy is “a sublime expression of God’s glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on earth. … Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation.”

Benedict XVI routinely connected this “glimpse of heaven on earth” with our everyday lives. Further in this exhortation he notes that “[t]he Christian laity, by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation, and strengthened by the Eucharist, are called to live out the radical newness brought by Christ wherever they find themselves. They should cultivate a desire that the Eucharist have an ever deeper effect on their daily lives, making them convincing witnesses in the workplace and in society at large.” 

These words are uniquely emphasized today by Pope Francis: “From the beauty of all these liturgical things,” he preached at his first Chrism Mass, “which is not so much about trappings and fine fabrics than about the glory of our God resplendent in his people, alive and strengthened, we turn now to a consideration of activity, action.”

Thus the images of Cardinal Bergoglio riding mass transit alongside tired commuters and of Pope Francis intimately embracing a child with cerebral palsy become powerful signs of what happens when Christ’s Eucharistic grace is allowed access to a fallen world. Of course, some can (and do) wrongly champion a Pelagian view that such actions by themselves will guarantee earthy peace and the salvation of souls. On the other hand, those who dismiss or criticize the attention that Pope Francis has received for inserting himself into the everyday are missing the evangelizing force of grace.

Shortly before his election to the papacy, Cardinal Bergoglio offered these observations as discussion points for his brother cardinals:

The Church is called to come out from itself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographical, but also existential: those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of injustice, those of ignorance and of the absence of faith, those of thought, those of every form of misery. … When the Church does not come out from itself to evangelize it becomes self-referential and gets sick (one thinks of the woman hunched over upon herself in the Gospel). The evils that, in the passing of time, afflict the ecclesiastical institutions have a root in self-referentiality, in a sort of theological narcissism. In Revelation, Jesus says that he is standing at the threshold and calling. Evidently the text refers to the fact that he stands outside the door and knocks to enter. . . But at times I think that Jesus may be knocking from the inside, that we may let him out. The self-referential Church presumes to keep Jesus Christ within itself and not let him out.

This image of an inwardly oriented Church that “keeps Jesus Christ within itself” chides those who would accept the Eucharistic presence of Christ with little desire to then go forth to announce the Gospel. Indeed, this lack of evangelical zeal fails to heed what Pope Benedict taught: that the faithful are to “live out the radical newness brought by Christ wherever they find themselves.”

In his doctoral study of St. Bonaventure, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger concluded that a Church that seeks peace in the future is “obliged to love in the present.” Throughout his pastoral and academic career, Joseph Ratzinger taught and lived this loving in the present—mindful always that to do so requires God’s grace, especially that which comes to us in the Eucharistic.

Pope Francis—who begins his days celebrating Mass with the community in which he lives—has also brought to life this loving in the present: He does so by dramatically emphasizing the external reach of the Church in the liturgies of everyday life even if he does prefer simpler liturgies of the altar (which seems fitting given that, as a Jesuit, he has taken a vow of poverty). These differences are not a break in pontifical teachings nor do they snub Benedict XVI. Rather, they give witness to true apostolic continuity—to the different gifts of the same Spirit—whenever Pope Francis instinctively lives out his older brother’s call to first experience the grace of God and then joyfully offer it to everyone else.

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About William L. Patenaude 35 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology and is an engineer and 33-year employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice, has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."