There is a story about a man going to visit Joseph Ratzinger in his office and seeing all the books on the shelves exclaimed, “Gosh, have you read all those books?!” to which Ratzinger replied, “Read them? I wrote them!”
Well, the grand total of his books comes to 66, as well as three encyclicals and four apostolic exhortations. Books about Ratzinger and his thought must number in the thousands by now.
And yet there was a time when seminarians kept the works by Ratzinger on their shelves wrapped in brown paper so that they would not be spotted by the powers that be. How ironic that is when you think that seminarians would perhaps have been much better served had they read nothing but his works. Even if nothing else were achieved by Ratzinger’s election as Pope than to make known and accessible his works, it would still have been worth it.
While sadly the world has lost this singular genius those 66 books are on shelves somewhere, waiting to be read (not to mention his other fragmentary work: homilies, addresses, etc). I would like to offer my own personal recommendations on how you might go about the task of getting familiar with his works, if you are not so already.
A good starting point might be his own memoirs, Milestones. The then-Cardinal Ratzinger tells his life story, from his Bavarian childhood to his appointment as Archbishop of Munich and Freising by Pope Paul VI in 1977. His description of his childhood years with his policeman father, devoted mother, and two older siblings Maria and Georg, is often very touching. (Particularly charming is the story of a beloved teddy bear which he ogled in a local shop window each day after school. One day he wept to find that it had disappeared, only to have it reappear at home as a Christmas gift).
On reading this book it struck me was how far off the mark were those nasty epithets “Panzerkardinal” and “God’s Rotweiler”. What is revealed here is a uniquely pious, intelligent, and sensitive soul, growing up surrounded by the barbarity of the Nazi escapade and finally the tragedy of World War II (a biographer later revealed that as an old man Ratzinger would wake in a sweat from nightmares about his time as a teenager assisting an anti-aircraft unit in Germany defending a BMW plant outside Munich).
For many the book that brought Ratzinger to their attention was the 1985 book-length interview containing a frank analysis of the state of the Church 20 years after the closing of the Council. While the book is now dated, it presented a timely criticism of the “hermeneutic of rupture” adopted by those who saw the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” as a licence to dispose of much of the Church’s traditional teaching.
One of the best known of Ratzinger’s theological works is Introduction to Christianity. Written in 1968, Introduction to Christianity contains a remarkable account of belief and a dense analysis of the Apostle’s Creed. However, in many cases it is the theological work of Ratzinger’s that people abandon a chapter or two in. While it is very brilliant, it is a very difficult work and is certainly not the place to start into Ratzinger’s theology.
In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, Eerdmans Publishing, 1995.
A much better starting point would be the less well known work In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall. This is a short work, containing four homilies on the creation story contained in the book of Genesis, originally given as Lenten sermons in the Liebfrauenkirche, in Munich. It is a wonderful example of how Ratzinger’s skill in tackling sacred scripture with vast learning, scientific rigour, and at the same time complete fidelity to the perennial teaching of the Church. The work is also full of the profound insights so proper to the author.
For a taste of Ratzinger’s thought on the Eucharist one should read the wonderful book. As with all his spiritual writings it is clear that Ratzinger did not write about the Catholic Faith in abstract, detached or theoretical terms. The huge power of his intellect worked in tandem with the equally huge love of Christ that filled his heart. As Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz put it in a recent tribute to the late Pope Emeritus, with whom he worked closely: “His whole life could be summarised in one beautiful phrase he pronounced at the Mass at the beginning of his Petrine ministry: ‘There is nothing more beautiful than allowing oneself to be touched by the Gospel, by Christ.’ For him, happiness ‘has a name, it has a face: that of Jesus of Nazareth, hidden in the Eucharist.’”
This tremendous quality of his mind and heart are also visible in what might be his magnum opus, his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, recently recalled by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s long-time secretary.
“These three volumes contain his whole personal being as a priest, a bishop, a cardinal and a pope, but also all of his theological research, his whole life of prayer — in a form which, thanks be to God, can be easily understood; a form which is written at the highest academic level, but will also, for the faithful, be his lasting personal testimony. And exactly that was the intention. With this book, this form of proclamation of faith, he wanted to strengthen people in faith, lead them to faith and open doors to faith.… I have read the first volume several times, I have read it over and over again in order to accompany certain seasons of my life. I can only recommend it; it’s very helpful, a true spiritual nourishment.”
Though we might need to add that when Gänswein says that these books “are easily understood”, that they are easily understood by Gänswein, but not by everyone. Be warned: they are in places quite challenging!
Liturgy was dear to Ratzinger’s heart, and The Spirit of the Liturgy is a real jewel. If you find yourself trying to make sense of the continuing controversy surrounding the Second Vatican Council’s reform of the liturgy, then this is the book for you. As is typical of Ratzinger, he goes beyond superficial squabbles to the very heart of the issues involved, in this case the very “spirit” of the liturgy itself.
One example of this is when he points out that in the much-debated question of whether a priest should be facing towards or away from the congregation as he celebrates Mass, he makes the deceptively simple observation that the real point is that he should be facing Christ during the Mass.
Ratzinger, as Pope, wrote three encyclicals: Deus caritas est (2005), Spe salvi (2007) and Caritas in veritate (2009) and while all three are wonderful, Spe salvi is particularly memorable. Of this Gänswein says: “Spe salvi is the encyclical that has given me personally the most spiritual nourishment, and I also believe that, of all his important encyclical letters, this one will ultimately ‘win the race’.”
Given that Ratzinger’s strictly academic career ended in 1977 when he was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising, most of his output is fragmentary, and is contained in addresses, homilies. Several of these addresses (such as the Regensburg Address) and homilies (such as the homily for the inauguration of his papacy) have already become classics. An excellent compilation of these kinds of works are to be found in The Essential Pope Benedict XVI.
A much simpler selection of texts from his writings was compiled in 1977 and updated a decade later to form a breviary of reflections for each day of the year called Co-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for every day of the year. Although it has the shortcoming that often the day of year fails to correspond to a movable feast or liturgical period of the liturgical year, it is nevertheless a very easy way to get a daily dose of something always accessible and inspiring from Ratzinger’s writings. (That said, it would certainly be wonderful to have a multi-volume expanded breviary with sections corresponding to movable feasts and the liturgical period.)
Benedict XVI: A Life Volume One: Youth in Nazi Germany to the Second Vatican Council 1927–1965, Bloomsbury Continuum, 2020.
Benedict XVI: A Life Volume Two: Professor and Prefect to Pope and Pope Emeritus 1966–The Present, Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021.
Finally, if you would like to read a biography of Ratzinger, I know of none better than Peter Seewald’s double volume Benedict XVI: A Life. Seewald was providentially well placed to write such a life, having been given many of hours of direct access to Pope Benedict, and being fascinated by his subject. He was very trusted by Ratzinger. (Seewald recently said in an interview that he deeply regretted having failed to properly communicate the figure of Ratzinger – though I suspect this reflects more an artist’s inability to be ever fully content with their work than an objective failure on Seewald’s part.)