It was the morning of 19 April 2005, and I was in North Carolina. I was a senior at Duke Divinity School and was in Duke Chapel with my spiritual formation group. In Rome Joseph Ratzinger had just been elected in the first papal conclave to occur in my lifetime; someone had seen the news, flung wide the doors, and yelled in “Habemus Papam!” Meanwhile, a small shrine to John Paul II had appeared in an empty classroom and many a Methodist and Baptist was to be seen there, kneeling quietly. There’s nothing quite like an ecumenical divinity school.
I had first encountered Ratzinger at the end of my undergraduate studies when someone gave me The Spirit of the Liturgy. I had entered the Anglican tradition as a freshman in college and, having come from the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, the process of learning about wider Catholic tradition was slow and unsystematic. The Spirit of the Liturgy was incredibly formative as its combination of theology and history was joined to a rich and often moving engagement with Scripture. Having been formed in the evangelical tradition, that last part was pretty important: here was a very Catholic theologian sounding notes and even melodies that were familiar to me.
Duke also exposed me to some of Ratzinger’s non-liturgical writing (which is most of it). But it was an encounter that was almost always deeply confusing, for it was at Duke that I slowly learned that Ratzinger was perceived by some as overly-traditionalist and a stodgy rigorist. The source of my confusion was that his theological writing just didn’t seem to fit with the characterization of him as “God’s Rottweiler.” I think his Eschatology was one of his first theological books that I read. I was blown away, not only by its theological subtlety and sophistication.
It was his presentation of purgatory that was particularly arresting, for he was clear that purgatory should not be viewed through a temporal lens. My Evangelical heart was stirred as he described the encounter of the departed Christian with the face of Jesus, the merciful judge: “There is no fire, only the Lord himself. There is no temporal duration involved, only eschatological encounter with the judge.” I was even more moved when I began to read Jesus of Nazareth. It deftly moves between genres: biblical criticism, history and spiritual writing. He was not just a scholar of the first order, but also a spiritual master.
I also encountered Mariology for the first time at Duke, along with Marian piety at my little Anglo-Catholic parish nearby. Ratzinger’s Daughter Zion only multiplied my surprise. His deep and personal devotion to Our Lady was apparent. But he also wrote unexpectedly about the Assumption: it is a theological claim, an “act of veneration,” he said, not firstly a historical claim. This did not sound like an ultra-conservative, and it was immensely helpful as I wrestled with and ultimately embraced the Church’s traditional teaching about the Mother of God.
READ ON BELOW…Benedict XVI: a teacher for the whole world – Catholic Herald