When Pope Benedict came to Scotland in late 2010, he spoke again and again with crowds, particularly of young people. His main theme, in one place after another, was Jesus. The heart of what he wanted to say was that to have a personal relationship with Jesus was the most important thing there could be. Everything else followed from that.
The media, of course, wanted to talk about sex. Of course there were and are issues about supporting victims, and about how abuse was handled (or not). But the reporting on Benedict’s visit was lop-sided. Benedict had just written three books about Jesus, going into remarkable detail (for instance) about the way Israel’s scriptures formed Jesus’ mind and vocation. Some people were muttering that perhaps he was a closet Evangelical. I think the truth is that the older he got the more the very heart of the faith meant to him. But that wasn’t what the reporters wanted to hear – until, this week, they noted that his dying words had been ‘Lord, I love you’.
Presidents and prime ministers seem to have been given an official script to read after Benedict’s death, saying that he was a ‘great theologian’. I did wonder how many of those who mouthed such words had the slightest idea what a theologian was, why the world might need great ones, or what Benedict’s particular contribution had been. His long list of books is far more than I can summarise. But my sense is that from early on – contrary to his public image when he was doing the job of heading up the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which required him to be a ‘policeman’ even if not a rottweiler, as was unkindly said – he was an explorer, ready to rethink traditional formulae in the light of scripture. On Purgatory, for instance, he insisted (on the basis of 1 Corinthians 3) that after death we shall meet the ‘fire’ which, in an instant, will purify us for the presence of God. I wouldn’t put it quite like that myself, but his view, and the similar one of Karl Rahner, represent a major shift in church teaching which has yet to have its impact. And since what you believe about life after death radically affects the nature of Christian discipleship, this is of immediate importance. Benedict was – unlike his public image! – a theologian ready to re-open old questions in the light of scripture and to articulate truths in and for the wider world.
He had, of course, a big, capacious mind. Asked to address the United Nations in April 2008, he argued that the entire western narrative of ‘human rights’ had its basis in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. He warned that, if those roots were cut off or ignored, the ‘rights’ discourse would collapse into a cacophony of competing claims, each made with the shrill tones of the would-be victim. It was a powerful address, full of nuance, deep cultural awareness and challenge to prevailing assumptions. The next morning the New York Times ran the headline: ‘Pope Supports Human Rights’. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, the print and broadcast media have long claimed the right to speak truth to power, and they don’t appreciate it when the church, whose vocation that always was, tries to take it back and put its finger on key issues. Benedict saw western culture at something of a crossroads, and added his learned and articulate voice to a point of view that still urgently needs to be heard.
Actually, the best sight of that visit (Maggie and I happened to be in New York at the time) came after Benedict presided at Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. The traffic was halted, and a posse of perhaps a hundred police motorcyclists, all dressed up to the nines, preceded him northwards, in lines four abreast, to the place where he was staying. I suspect they were all either Irish or Italian, proud as punch to be escorting the great man.
My last memory of him was that autumn, in the Synod of Bishops in Rome, where I was the Anglican observer. Benedict sat poised at the focal point of the vast hall, flanked by cardinals and secretaries, looking out at 2000 assorted bishops from around the world. His body and facial language spoke, not of a church bureaucrat, but of the professor chairing the seminar. His sharp eyes ranged around the room, taking in contributions in the various official languages, intervening from time to time to provide a lucid summary of a particular aspect of the discussion. There’s a hymn which speaks of God’s ‘kind but searching glance’. That’s what I saw on Benedict’s face in those sessions.
May he rest in peace, with the Jesus he loved, and rise in glory.
N.T. Wright, January 2023
Tom Wright is Professor Emeritus of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, and Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford