Following closely from afar: My journey with Joseph Ratzinger

For me and for countless other ordinary people, Benedict XVI stands as a father figure and a mentor. He also stands as an evangelist — announcing the Christian event — and as a catechist who echoed the memory of the Church and helped draw people into deeper communion with Jesus.

(Image courtesy of the author.)

I stood in the dank darkness — a fairly typical mid-winter morning in Cincinnati — holding an umbrella over my newly lighted charcoal. The sun remained asleep and the strange noises of night lingered in the air. I could feel my right side getting wet as I sacrificed it for the sake of protecting my glowing coals from the drizzle.

Occasionally the breeze would shift and the pillar of smoke and heat flowing up the charcoal chimney would get trapped under the umbrella and burn my eyes and choke my nostrils.

In this setting, preparing for a long, damp day smoking meat, I read the daily Mass readings on my phone. It was early on December 31. John’s Prologue was the Gospel of the day.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.

The passage was fitting. Standing next to my humble fire amid the pitch blackness, I reflected on the illuminating power of light piercing the darkness all around it.

Moments later, I received the first of many texts that day. This one from a dear friend in Denver:

“May the angels sing him into Paradise. Perhaps something from Bach would be appropriate!”

Pope Benedict XVI died.


My first year of college was a whirlwind. A cradle Catholic, I had been asleep in my faith for years. Just before starting at the university, I experienced the start of a conversion, or reversion, or reawakening of faith — whatever you prefer to call it. This was solidified on campus as I got caught up with a clandestine group of students who had rediscovered Eucharistic adoration — which took place in a beautiful gothic chapel, the entrance of which was hidden in a back hallway of the admissions building.

In the grand scheme of things, I was rather ignorant of what John Paul II meant for the Church and the world, though I knew it was a big deal when he died. Still, I paid little attention to the ensuing conclave.

One day, as I was walking out of the cafeteria with one of my fellow adoration-goers, we bumped into a group of students, faculty, and staff huddled around a TV in a lobby area. On the screen, white smoke billowed from a rooftop chimney and there was a buzz amongst the crowd — both on the television and the curious one now watching.

After what seemed like a considerable amount of time, a cardinal stepped onto the balcony and uttered the following:

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; habemus papam: Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Iosephum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae cardinalem Ratzinger, qui sibi nomen imposuit Benedicti Decimi Sexti.


With my nonexistent Latin skills, I struggled to follow the announcement. I did, however, pick up on the word Ratzinger.

I had no idea who this Joseph Ratzinger was. But, my friend, also a member of the underground adoration-goers, who was further along in his studies and more schooled in ecclesial matters, he was exuberant.

The next day, I stopped by the campus ministry office where a deep cloud of anxiety hung over everyone. This might be my imagination, but I seem to recall someone crying. I inquired about the gloomy state of things and the campus minister informed me of the office’s great concern about the newly elected pontiff — who they perceived as being decidedly opposed to the contextual theology they championed.

From there, I went to my fallen-away-Catholic-turned-anti-Catholic professor’s Introduction to Religious Studies class. He was beside himself with the election of Benedict XVI and appalled by all the apparently stupid and exuberant Catholics who had gathered in St. Peter’s square. “Bozo the clown could have emerged from behind the curtain and they would have cheered.”

This is how it all started. In the guts of a Catholic institution filled with animus toward the new pope, I began following Benedict XVI. I picked up on enough to know something significant happened with this utterance of habemus papem and that I needed to pay attention.

So, I did.

Following Pope Benedict XVI

Eventually I transferred from that university and took up courses in theology. I read Pope Benedict’s homilies and talks on the side. I found them edifying. Benedict XVI was becoming a spiritual father to me, the infant in the faith I was.

A few years later, while studying abroad in Austria, I had an opportunity to travel to Rome and attend a general audience. The square was packed and we were strategically positioned for an encounter with Benedict XVI following the audience as he perused the place in the popemobile. As he approached, we arranged ourselves with the ladies standing on the ground and the gentlemen standing on chairs above them, which essentially let us pack twice as many people in one row — all lunging toward the Pope with all our might. The girl I was dating at the time, who is now my lovely wife, had a nice handshake and some eye contact with Benedict XVI.

I basically whiffed. I couldn’t quite reach his outstretched hand, but we did make eye contact, so that counts for something.

Following college, I started in parish ministry and graduate studies, my reading of Benedict XVI took on new meaning. I was undertaking deeper study and I found his insights tremendously helpful on the catechetical front. I once joked with my team of ministry volunteers that all of my talks were constructed from Scripture, the Catechism, and commentary by Pope Benedict XVI. Now, Pope Benedict XVI was becoming a theological mentor.

His theological insights struck a chord with the teenagers in my program and his clarity cut through so much noise and confusion. Echoing his lucid catechesis and seeing its fruits, I knew exactly who I wanted to study as the opportunity for doctoral studies came knocking on my door. And, to have the opportunity to study under Ratzinger Award winning scholar, Tracey Rowland, was a display of God’s providence for which I will be eternally grateful.

Perhaps most importantly, Benedict XVI’s spiritual fatherhood and theological mentorship has shaped my marriage and the parenting of our children as we navigate these essential relationships amid the “dictatorship of relativism.” Frequently, I find myself turning to his insights on virtue, doctrine, and culture as my wife and I struggle to prevent ourselves and our children from being “tossed by waves and swept along by every teaching arising from human trickery” (Eph. 4:14).

The gift in Ratzinger’s theology

Much has been said and much more will be said about Benedict XVI’s theological contributions, and by those far more capable than I. So, I will limit myself to one observation: the key, it seems, to the whole of his theology is the person of Jesus Christ and faith in him.

I realized this one day as I was researching for my dissertation. After months of poring over countless Ratzinger books and articles, I put down one of his books and said aloud: “He always talks about Jesus. It’s all about Jesus.”

What dawned on me in that moment, I believe, is the key to reading Ratzinger — at the core of every work, no matter the topic, stands the person of Jesus Christ. Each piece is an attempt to remove the veil and allow the light of Christ to shine on the topic at hand.

The gift of Ratzinger’s theology is his “given,” then. His “given” is Christ, the Logos, the Word made flesh — and the encounter with him. Benedict XVI summarizes this point in a line in Deus Caritas Est that I will never tire of repeating: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (§1).

God is not an idea, some abstraction, and Christianity is not moralism or reducible to “gospel values.”

Christianity takes on an utterly personal (i.e., relational) character. It is frighteningly real.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.

And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us

No one has ever seen God.
The only-begotten Son, God, who is at the Father’s side,
has revealed him.

“No one has ever seen God,” the evangelist states so matter-of-factly. The Son, the Word, who “lives before the face of God…as a Son,” who “lives in the most intimate unity with the Father,” he reveals the Father (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 6).

Therefore, “Christian faith is more than the option in favor of a spiritual ground to the world,” Ratzinger says in Introduction to Christianity. “Its central formula is not ‘I believe in something,’ but ‘I believe in you.’ It is the encounter with the man Jesus, and in this encounter it experiences the meaning of the world as a person. In Jesus’ life from the Father, in the immediacy and intensity of this converse with him in prayer and, indeed, face to face . . . he is the presence of the eternal itself in this world” (79).

The most basic Christian confession, then, the “object” of our faith, so to speak, is Jesus, the Word, the Son, God. And this confession bears the mark of the wholly personal: “I believe in you, Jesus of Nazareth, as the meaning (logos) of the world and of my life” (Introduction to Christianity, 81).

This kernel, this Christocentric core, this invitation to personally encounter Christ again and again in the Church, this is the constant refrain in Ratzinger’s work. His “given” is the gift he offers the Church and the world.

A light in the darkness

I fully realize my story and tribute is rather mundane. It has no real exceptional qualities. I am the bearer of no awards given in Benedict XVI’s honor. I was not one of his doctoral students. I had no private audience with him. I could not even successfully shake his hand when I had the chance! Yet, for me and for countless other ordinary people, he stands as a father figure and a mentor. He also stands as an evangelist — announcing the Christian event — and as a catechist who echoed the memory of the Church and helped draw people into deeper communion with Jesus.

So, as it turned out, praying lectio divina on the deck of our suburban home — the dark with an umbrella over the grill — became a perfect backdrop for the news I heard early on December 31. The setting was, in a sense, filled with many ordinary elements of ordinary life.

As I watched my firelight rip through the darkness before me, I read about the Word that has spoken and who speaks today, the Word who is light and who breaks the bonds of darkness. Moments later, I considered the life of Benedict XVI as a light to the world (cf. Mt. 5:14). This humble co-worker of the Lord, a contemporary bear of Corbinian, was illumined by a source other than himself who had become his “all in all” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:28).

With my eyes still burning from charcoal smoke trapped under my umbrella, I considered his theology as a shield from the storm that sprang up after Vatican II. Or as a pillar of fire and cloud — pointing to the presence of God still operative in the Church and guiding us through some rather dark and bleak landscapes on this leg of the pilgrimage.

In so many ways, Benedict XVI was, and is, a light shining in darkness. As a testimony to Christ’s light shining through him I felt compelled to write this piece — because the light of Christ transforms everything mundane and unexceptional in our lives into radiant beauty if we let it. Through the life of Benedict XVI, the radiance of Christ has touched the lives of ordinary people — opening for us a new horizon and sending us in a decisive direction.

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About Brad Bursa, Ph.D. 4 Articles
Brad Bursa, Ph.D. is an assistant professor and the director of theology programs at St. Thomas University (Miami, Florida) and co-founder of Nazareth Revisited. He earned his doctorate in theology from The University of Notre Dame Australia and has served in a wide variety of catechetical roles for the last 14 years. He is the author of Because He Has Spoken to Us: Structures of Proclamation from Rahner to Ratzinger.


  1. “and this life was the light of the human race”

    You should probably get a better translation. This life was the light “of men,” not “of the human race.”

  2. The light was weak from those smoldering coals.It was more than strong enough though to pull this reader into the authors love for Cardinal Ratzinger and the Cardinals love for
    Master,Lord,and Friend.
    Thank You

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