Ten texts help crack pope's pontificate, mission, ministry

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – If there's one thing people learned about Pope Benedict XVI during his U.S. visit, it's that he's got content.

His talks and sermons were minilessons on the faith and its relationship with the world, blending the advice of a pastor with the reflections of a theologian.

The collected talks are now being read and pondered by Catholics across the country who want to delve a little more deeply into the pope's message during his April visit.

But what about the rest of his pontificate? What about the hundreds of speeches, homilies, encyclicals, messages, prayers and letters that he's produced during the first three years as pope?

For those unable to keep up with everything Pope Benedict does and says, here is a starting point: a list of 10 fundamental texts that can help people understand the man, his thought and his ministry.

One caveat: The list makes no claim to be a "top 10," just a useful anthology. And where the works are particularly lengthy, this list indicates specific chapters or passages.

1. The pope's sermon at his inauguration Mass April 24, 2005. Less than a week after his election, he spelled out clearly how he saw his ministry and the mission of the church.

A snippet: "The purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men. And only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary."

2. The introduction and Part 1 of his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love). Not an easy read, but essential to understanding the central themes of his pontificate. Among the objections confronted by the pope is that the Church has destroyed erotic love: "Doesn't the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life?"

Here's part of the answer: "Love is indeed 'ecstasy,' not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self toward its liberation through self-giving."

3. His talk Dec. 22, 2005, to the Roman Curia. Here the pope lays out his vision of the proper understanding of the Second Vatican Council and answers the question: Why has its implementation been so difficult?

4. His sermon Jan. 8, 2006, at a Mass with the baptism of infants. The pope literally set aside his prepared text and spoke off the cuff in a remarkable explanation of baptism, the role of the Church as community and the Christian's "yes" to the culture of life.

5. His meeting with young people April 6, 2006. This question-and-answer session revealed a more personal side of the pope, including his initial doubts about being a good priest: "I also knew that it was not enough to love theology in order to be a good priest, but that it was also necessary to be always available to young people, the elderly, the sick and the poor: the need to be simple with the simple."

6. His interview in August 2006 with German reporters ahead of his homecoming visit to Bavaria. Although he is said to have remarked "Thank God that's over" after it was finished, the pope had no problem fielding questions about fallen-away Catholics, the Middle East, his travel plans, the Church's political strategies and other topics.

7. The pope's speech at Germany's University of Regensburg Sept. 12, 2006. Its citation of a medieval description of Islam provoked strong criticism among Muslims and a papal clarification. The speech is worth reading in its entirety, however, because it takes aim not only at Islamic extremism but also at the West and its tendency to "exclude the question of God" from the realm of reason.

8. His letter to Chinese Catholics June 30, 2007. The pope attempts to disentangle the knot of ecclesial and political problems in China by presenting a clear vision of the Church and its mission, and a strong case for the respect of religious freedom.

9. His second encyclical, Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope), published in late 2007. If the whole text is too much, Sections 16-31 – about 20 pages – form the nucleus of his case for Christian hope and redemption in the modern world.

10. His weekly audience talk on St. Augustine Jan. 30. These weekly talks constitute a type of "Early Christianity 101," but this one focuses on the pope's favorite Church father and one of his most important themes, the relationship between faith and reason.

This list omits the pope's 2007 book, Jesus of Nazareth, only because of its unusual scope and length. Those wanting to sample the book might look at chapter 4, "The Sermon on the Mount," which examines the beatitudes in light of Jesus' own times and modern social trends. A bonus is that the pope here engages in an indirect dialogue with a learned Jewish rabbi on what Christ's preaching meant for the Jewish people of his time.

It's also hard to pick a "best speech" from Pope Benedict's U.S. visit, but his talk to young people in Yonkers April 18 stuck in many people's minds. The pope combined personal reflections about his own youth with the spiritual prodding of his audience: "Friends, again I ask you, what about today? What are you seeking? What is God whispering to you?"

That's vintage Benedict.

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