By Matthew S.C. Olver
(This article first appeared on PrayTell and is being reprinted by permission.)
“Habemus papem!” This is not a sentence one expects to hear in Duke Chapel. Trust me. Years later, I remember ruminating on whether that sentence had ever been uttered within those walls. It was mid-April of 2005: I was a senior at Duke Divinity School and was in Duke Chapel with my spiritual formation group. Joseph Ratzinger had just been elected in the first papal conclave to occur in my lifetime. Someone had seen the news, ran to Duke Chapel, flung wide the doors, and literally yelled, “Habemus Papem!” In the weeks that followed, a small shrine to John Paul II appeared in an empty classroom, a 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 in 1997 and having come from the Brethren in Christ tradition, the process of learning about the wider Catholic tradition was slow and unsystematic. The Spirit of the Liturgy was incredible formative for me, in part because of its combination of theology and history, 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. To mess with the title of one of Marcus Borg’s most famous books, it was like “Meeting Jesus and the Bible Again for the First Time.” In fact, that aspect of Ratzinger’s liturgical writing would end up having a big impact on my own scholarly work, which wouldn’t begin for over another decade. The ways that liturgical texts appropriate Scripture and reflect its interpretation was really the animating question of my dissertation, and I later published an article garnered on the topic (“A Classification of a Liturgy’s Use of Scripture: A Proposal,” Studia Liturgica 49, no. 2 (2019): 220–45).
Duke also exposed me to some of Ratzinger’s non-liturgical writing (which is most of his writing). But it was an encounter that was almost always deeply confusing. It was a Duke where I slowly learned that Ratzinger was perceived by some as overly-traditionalist on the liturgy and a stodgy rigorist as it concerned Catholic theology (he was the head of the former Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 to 2005). 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 book, Eschatology, was one of his first theological books that I read. I was blown away, not only by the theological subtlety and sophistication of the book. His presentation of purgatory was particularly arresting. He was clear that purgatory should not be viewed through a temporal lens. And my evangelical heart was strangely warmed 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 think I was even more moved when I began to read his volumes on Jesus. The first one in particular never ceases to move me. Part of its power is the way it deftly moves between genres: biblical criticism, history, spiritual writing. I knew I was in the hands of a master: not just a scholar of the first order, but a spiritual master.
I encountered Mariology for the first time at Duke, along with Marian piety at my little Anglo-Catholic parish. Ratzinger’s Daughter Zion only multiplied my surprise. His deep and personal devotion to Our Lady was apparent, of course. But he also wrote some unexpected things about the Assumption: it is a theological claim, an “act of veneration,” he said, not first a historical claim. This did not sound like an ultra-conservative. The book was immensely helpful as I wrestled with and ultimately embraced the traditional teaching about the Blessed Virgin.
I had had the chance to meet him just once, and only in a passing handshake. I was Rome for the first time and he had not been pope a year. I was taking a class at the Anglican Centre with the great ecumenist, Dame Mary Tanner, on the ARCIC statement, “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.” It was an outdoor Wednesday audience and our PCPCU representative secured us very close seats (thanks, Bishop Donald Bolan!). I have a photograph that I took of Pope Benedict, smiling broadly, just before we shook hands. A few years later, I was part of a group that accompanied Rowan Williams on his official visit to Pope Benedict XVI. One of the many events of the week was Vespers in the Redemptoris Mater chapel within the Apostolic Palace. I was sitting with my friend, Christopher Wells, and we watched as the Holy Father carefully looked at each person in the chapel. Our eyes met briefly and I’m sure I smiled rather nervously. His mouth had the beginning of a smile and he nodded his head ever so slightly.
It was not until I got to Marquette University that I realized just how deeply some Catholics disliked him. I remember sitting in a class as one of my classmates, a Catholic priest, went on for a good ten minutes about the scourge that was Pope Benedict. I think he also threw in a choice dig about the oppressive nature of priests wearing clericals — I was wearing my priest collar at the time, in part because when I left parish ministry for doctoral work, my bishop told me that I was to dress as a priest in school: “You are there for the sake and in service of the Church,” he told me. “So you need to dress like it.” I came to understand cognitively where these feelings about Benedict came from. But this is never how I encountered Joseph Ratzinger.
The last two times I was in Rome to teach, he had retired to the seclusion of the Mater Ecclesia monastery within the Vatican, and I would send a letter to him a few months before I was to arrive. I would express my appreciation for how he had influenced my own spiritual journey and academic work and I would ask if I might be present for Mass. I always received a very generous reply from his secretary, Bishop Georg Gänswein, letting me know that this was not possible, but that I should be assured that the Holy Father had remembered me at Mass.
I think I will always be very grateful to have been given the opportunity to participate in the colloquium that focused on Joseph Ratzinger and the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation at Mundelein Seminary (thank you, Matthew Levering!). The book it produced has a number of quite remarkable essays that I hope give appropriate honor to one of the towering theological voices of the 20th century. It will be a joy when we all have passed through the Grave and Gate that stands before each of us to see how many people had their hearts strangely warmed by this Bavarian, and who maybe even found the door to the ecclesial ark because of this servant of the servants of God.
The recent words of the Pope Emeritus on his impending death fit with the person who has influenced my spiritual life.
“Quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life. Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings, and is thus also my advocate, my ‘Paraclete.’ In light of the hour of judgement, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship, with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death.”
And I pray that I might be able to say such a prayer when I come to my dark door.
Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver is associate professor of Liturgics and Pastoral Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, and 2022-23 Alan Richardson Fellow at Durham University, United Kingdom.