June 2007 - Volume 11, Issue 11
The Pope's New Book
A few weeks back, I was surprised to receive a call from Bill Barry of Doubleday inviting me to be on a panel to introduce Pope Benedict XVI's new book, Jesus of Nazareth. The panel was to include the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, and the well-known columnists John Allen and George Weigel. Our collective task was to present this book in such a way that many would want to read it - either out of genuine love for the faith or at least out of curiosity.
I don't know if we accomplished our task but we had fun trying. We gathered at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington before an audience of about 200 people, and after our presentations we took questions. We then carried on our lively discussions at a dinner that went way past my bedtime.
My specific role was to reflect on the pastoral dimensions of this book. How does it help us to follow Jesus, the Shepherd of our souls? How does it assist pastors and their coworkers in leading others to Jesus and the Gospel?
Perhaps the most basic answer is that this is a book written by a shepherd who is first and foremost a disciple. Reflecting on the meaning of "shepherd" in John's Gospel, Pope Benedict tells us that "Even the disciple who . . . goes ahead of the others as shepherd must 'follow' Jesus" (p. 277). In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict, as a follower of Jesus, can be glimpsed. Not an exercise of the Magisterium, this volume speaks of the serene, confident, and prayerful faith of a pastor who has been deeply involved for more than half a century in biblical scholarship and study of the ancient Christian writers. The pope's search for Jesus is also marked by the theological and cultural ferment of our times and by his service, for more than twenty years, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Pope Benedict wrote this book because, as a fellow disciple, he wants us to know and love Jesus of Nazareth as He emerges in the Sacred Scripture when it is read as a unified whole. In that context, he expresses pastoral concern over distorted images of the Person of Christ. We see such distortions in popular culture, such as Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, where Scripture texts and other historic writings are selectively plucked and then hammered into a conspiratorial story line. So also the uniqueness and universality of Christ as Savior of the world is relativized in some inter-faith explorations that "regard Jesus [merely] as one of the great religious founders who were granted a profound experience of God" (p. 293). In Jesus of Nazareth, the pope shows how Jesus emerges in Scripture as the one, universal Savior, "the Son, nearest the Father's heart" (John 1:18; see for example, p. 340). And while in this book the Holy Father expresses his appreciation for and his reliance on modern methods of biblical study and interpretation, especially the "historical-critical" method, he also recognizes the inability of any historical method to bring Christ into the present by reconstructing the past. Over-reliance on such methods of study has led to an erroneous perception that the Christ whom the Church proclaims is not the same as the Jesus of the Gospels.
This is not just a question for scholars. Who Jesus is matters. On His identity and mission hinge the meaning and value of our existence. On Him hinges our destiny. Those serious about their faith want to know if the Gospels are reliable. They want to know if the Jesus in Whom they put their faith - to Whom they pray, Whom they receive in the Eucharist, and Whose way of life they are trying to follow - is truly the Incarnate Son of God who entered history as Savior of the world.
As we search for Jesus, the pope's book guides us in our study of the Bible. Surveying recent scholarship and building on the best of it, the Holy Father relies on the teaching of Vatican II which acknowledges the need to investigate the meaning which the authors of the various books of the Bible had in mind as well as the literary forms they used. The Council goes on to say: "But since Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted with its divine authorship in mind, no less attention must be devoted to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, taking into account the Tradition of the entire Church and the analogy of faith, if we are to derive their true meaning from the sacred texts" (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, 12).
Following the guidance of the Council, the pope makes use of a method of Scripture study developed here in Connecticut, at Yale University, called "canonical exegesis." It recognizes that the Church formed the canon of Scripture (the Church's list of the books of the Bible) from her experience and knowledge of Christ. Thus, in the light of Christ, we see the unity of the Old and New Testaments. The pope demonstrates how Scripture passages illuminate one another, how the Synoptic Gospels and John's Gospel complement one another, and how the words and deeds of Christ come to life when viewed against the backdrop of Israel's feasts, the sayings of the prophets, and, especially, the towering figure of Moses. In a sense, the pope is recouping how the ancient Church read Scripture and is offering insight into how the Church reads Scripture in the context of the liturgy.
But this book is far more than an exposition of theory. It is an intellectually intimate and vibrant portrait of Jesus Christ. It aims to open our minds and hearts to Christ so that we, like Peter, may be struck with wonder and awe as we encounter the Messiah of God. This encounter is what enables us to deal with the trials of discipleship and to illuminate the challenges of our times, such as the temptation to link faith with expectations of health and prosperity; the temptation to the false freedom of the prodigal son or the angry obedience of the elder son; the current drama of Africa's suffering; the likely reaction of any dictatorship or overweening state to the absolute claims of the universal Savior.
It is all the more remarkable that the pope conducts his search for Jesus in the marketplace of ideas. His judgments about methods for studying the Scriptures and about the interpretation of various texts are open to criticism. Some may question whether a pontiff should reveal his personal theology to this degree and submit it to this sort of criticism. Yet, in a sense, the Holy Father is doing in a profound way what every confessing Catholic is called to do on a daily basis: "to give an accounting of the hope that is ours" (1 Peter 3:15) in Christ Jesus. We are to do this precisely in the marketplace of ideas where the global culture is being formed.
All too often, even practicing Catholics of good will are immersed in this marketplace without a coherent understanding of Christ and the faith. This book does not intend fully to address that need but it sets its readers on the right path toward understanding and embracing the Church's teaching more adequately. As such, it is surely a wonderful resource for Bible study and adult formation.
This book has another pastoral application. While not designed as a preaching aid, it would help any homilist who wants to help his congregation to embrace the Beatitudes more fully, pray the Our Father more deeply, or discern the wealth of meaning in the parables. Jesus of Nazareth models how, with intellectual rigor and love, we can present the faith in a unified and spiritually nourishing way.
About 15 years ago, I was present when Cardinal Ratzinger gave a talk at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. That same evening, he was scheduled to give a talk in Washington. To get there, he flew with a few of us on a small plane. The weather was stormy and the ride was rough. He also had a touch of the flu. Nonetheless, we, his fellow wayfarers, pummeled him with questions. Like a revered professor and a gentle pastor all rolled into one, he answered our questions thoughtfully, punctuating his replies with scholarly allusions and his own experience.
In Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict has done the same thing - but now for a worldwide audience.
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