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A beginner’s guide to reading Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

Some suggested books for the ordinary reader who is looking for a good place to start.

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A couple of days ago, looking through and re-reading sections from some of the many (many!) books by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, I took this photo and posted it on Twitter and Facebook:

To my surprise, that Tweet now has almost 500 likes, which is far, far more than the usual modest amount I am able to summon from the mysterious corners of Twitterland. Which speaks to the strong and continued interest in the thought and writing of the late pope, priest, theologian, professor from Bavaria.

A few people asked me about favorite books, as well as “Where to start?” While I am not an expert on the thought and works of Ratzinger/Benedict, I have read roughly 75% or so of the books pictured above, and have written several essays and reviews over the years.

Here are a few suggested books for the ordinary reader—that is, who is not a trained theologian or academic—who is looking for a good place to start.

My first choice is echoed by Mark Brumley, President of Ignatius, who referred to it as “Ratzinger’s Catechism.” In my 2002 Touchstone review of God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time—A Conversation with Peter Seewald (Ignatius, 2002), I described it in similar terms:

It is the third lengthy interview with Seeward and, just as in The Ratzinger Report (Ignatius, 1987) and Salt of the Earth (Ignatius, 1997), Ratzinger answers about a vast array of topics. One could say that God and the World is “The Cardinal’s Catechism,” for the structure and chronology of the book have a decidedly catechetical sensibility roughly paralleling that of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Prologue focuses on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, and the three major sections of the book take on, in sequence, the topics of God, Jesus Christ, and the Church. Ratzinger’s theological vision shines forth with crystalline focus and cohesiveness.

Yes, the book is 460 pages long. But it is in Q&A format, so readers can, if they wish, dip in and out of various sections. And it covers numerous subjects, all with the clarity that characterizes all of Ratzinger’s work. Plus, the tone is conversational; while some sections can be somewhat involved, they are never esoteric or academic, all meant for a popular audience. As such, I think it is ideal for not only individual reading, but group studies and various classes.

The Pope Benedict XVI Reader, published in 2021 by Word on Fire Institute, with a Foreword by Bishop Robert Barron, is a very handsome collection that covers a lot of ground with 54 excerpts (364 pages). It is also arranged thematically—God, Jesus Christ, The Church, Vatican II, The Bible, Liturgy, and so forth—with many of the excerpts taken from books published by Ignatius Press as well as from various addresses and documents issued during Benedict’s papacy. All sources for the excerpts are given, so readers can easily move on to fuller works, depending on what captures their interest in reading this fine collection.

A much shorter and succinct way to start reading Ratzinger/Benedict can be found in 100 pages of An Invitation to Faith: An A to Z Primer on the Thought of Pope Benedict XVI.(Giniger/Ignatius, 2007). The book’s descriptive copy sums it up nicely: “This volume is a handy little primer on the thought of the beloved Pontiff in which the reader can pick out any key word or topic from the alphabetical order of meditations throughout the book to meditate and focus on.” This is perfect for folks looking for short quotes on particular topics; the overall collection gives a solid sense of the approach and style one will find in full books and collections of essays/addresses. Do note, however, that all the quotes are from his time as pope; none from his pre-papacy writings.

Co-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year (Ignatius, 1992) offers a hefty range of 365 excerpts (each roughly a page or so in length) from the writings of Joseph Ratzinger. The daily approach will likely appeal to many readers. The one drawback, as of this writing, is that the book is only available in digital form.

The three Jesus of Nazareth books are wonderful and should eventually be read, in my opinion, but I suggest starting with the collection of papal audiences (from March 2006 to February 2007) titled Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church (Ignatius, 2007). These 31 audiences, each a few pages in length, are catechetical gems, ushering readers into Benedict’s rich and remarkable understanding of Scripture, Christ, the Apostles, and the beginnings of the Church. Readers can then move on to the collections The Fathers (OSV, 2008), which begins with St. Clement and concludes with St. Augustine (who is one of Benedict’s great inspirations), Church Fathers and Teachers (Ignatius, 2010), which begins with St. Leo the Great and goes through Peter Lombard, and Holy Men and Women of the Middle Ages and Beyond (Ignatius, 2012), which covers Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Bonaventure, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Teresa of Avila, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and many others.

Finally, to bring it this brief list into a circles of sorts, consider reading the short collection of three sermons titled What It Means To Be a Christian (Ignatius, 2006). These Advent sermons were given by the young Fr. Ratzinger in December 1964, during the time when Ratzinger was a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council. They are compact and challenging, strong distillations of the young priest’s understanding of the Christian vocation. I conclude with this excerpt: “In our generation the Christian Faith finds itself in a much deeper crisis than at any other time in the past. In this situation it is no solution to shut our eyes in fear in the face of pressing problems, or to simply pass over them. If faith is to survive this age, then it must be lived, and above all, lived in this age. And this is possible only if a manifestation of faith is shown to have value for our present day, by growing to knowledge and fulfillment.”

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Thank you Carl Olson.

    It’s somehow very fitting that Joseph Ratzinger was buried on the eve of The Feast of the Ephinany.

    He accomplished an epiphany in me, over-and-over again, for my life as a grown (and formerly sleep-walking) Catholic, and I love him for that gift.

    Thanks for your gift of CWR, one of the few Catholic places that allows people to converse on its pages.

    • I strongly agree with Chris — about CWR, about Mr. Olson and about Pope Benedict.

      I especially appreciate that, while there are complex questions discussed here, one does not generally have to have a Ph.D. in Theology to navigate these pages.

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