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Pope Benedict XVI, Theologian of Joy: An Interview with Monsignor Joseph Murphy, author of Christ Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI | Carl E. Olson

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Monsignor Joseph Murphy, a native of Ireland, received his S.T.L. degree from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. He has taught in colleges and seminaries, written articles for several publications, and is currently an official of the Secretariat of State at the Vatican. Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed Monsignor Murphy about his recently published book, Christ Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI (Ignatius Press, 2008). An excerpt from the Introduction to Monsignor Murphy's book can be read here.

Ignatius Insight: What was the genesis of your book? What do you hope readers will learn and better appreciate about the theological work of Pope Benedict XVI?

Monsignor Murphy: Joseph Ratzinger's writings have fascinated me for a long time. As a seminarian, I became familiar with such works as The Ratzinger Report, Introduction to Christianity, To Look on Christ, Ministers of Your Joy, and Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. From that time, I was impressed by the extraordinary clarity and depth of Ratzinger's thought, and his ability to diagnose the problems of the current situation, engage in dialogue with contemporary ideas, and offer a way forward, drawing on the perennial riches of the Christian tradition.

The book came about in this way. When Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope I was immediately struck by the content of his first homilies, which offered a thought-provoking and inspiring presentation of the Christian message. In particular, I was intrigued by his emphasis on joy and decided to take a closer look at his writings to get a better understanding of what he meant by it. I initially found what I was looking for in an article entitled "Faith as Trust and Joy—Evangelium", which was his contribution to Bernhard Häring's Festschrift, published in 1977. The article itself was later reprinted in Principles of Catholic Theology (Ignatius Press, 1987). Subsequently, on reading other texts, I noticed that joy is very much present in throughout Ratzinger's work and that it arises in connection with all the key themes of the Christian faith. It seemed to me that this was exactly the kind of message that people today, with all their questions and problems, needed to hear again. Also this way of presenting the Christian message could serve to overcome the indifference or discouragement which afflict many members of the Church, and rekindle their enthusiasm and love for the faith.

I hope that the readers of Christ Our Joy will enjoy it as much as I did writing it! I tried to show that even though Pope Benedict, because of his other heavy commitments, never had the opportunity to develop a systematic presentation of the Christian faith—the closest he comes to it is in Introduction to Christianity—there is something like a complete vision of Christianity in his various writings, that joy is central to that vision, and that this manner of presenting the Christian message is particularly appropriate in today's circumstances.

Ignatius Insight: For many people, especially those who know little about Benedict XVI except what they have read or heard via the secular media, associating "joy" with the Holy Father might be surprising, even strange. What would you say to those who might be puzzled by this association? How is joy a part of Benedict's theological vision?

Monsignor Murphy: While certainly criticisms could be made of some media presentations of the Pope, which are often little more than caricatures, it should also be pointed out that it is thanks to the media and, in particular, to television, newspapers and news magazines that many people have come know the Holy Father better, particularly in such high profile events as the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the inaugural Mass of the Pontificate and Pope Benedict's recent pastoral visit to the United States.

I can well imagine that for people who have become used to a certain one-sided image of the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, associating the word "joy" with the Pope might well appear somewhat surprising. However, I would simply invite them to listen to what he has to say and read some of his writings. They will find that his thought is actually very hope-filled, encouraging and inspiring.

Rather than saying that joy is part of Pope Benedict's theological vision, I would say that joy characterizes both his thought and, more generally, Christian life itself, which after all is a life in the Holy Spirit, in the "Spirit of eternal joy", as the Pope calls him. Authentic joy is bound up with the Christian faith in its entirety and it flows from living that faith to the full. In the article I mentioned above, the Pope shows how joy presupposes inner harmony and serenity, and these in turn arise from the experience of being loved with a love that is true and unfailing. Only God, who reveals himself in Jesus Christ, can provide this true and unfailing love. As Ratzinger's friend, the German philosopher Josef Pieper, puts it, only God can truly say to us: "Yes, it is good that you are, that you exist".

Ignatius Insight: What are some aspects of joy found in Benedict's work that might be new or surprising to readers? What are some other essential qualities of Benedict's thought that are interrelated with joy?

Monsignor Murphy: Joy is of course a central Biblical theme, and so Christianity and joy must be closely associated. For example, in the intimacy of the Last Supper, Christ says to his disciples: "These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full" (Jn 15:11). Christianity is not about imposing heavy burdens on people, nor is it an oppressive system of do's and don'ts. Rather, it is the path to freedom and to true joy. Hence, the Holy Father's emphasis on joy is simply in keeping with his desire to communicate what is essential to Christianity, what it is really all about.

In this regard, there are some aspects of Pope Benedict's thought that readers may find new or at least thought-provoking. For example, many people, when they hear about the Church, automatically think of her institutional aspects, structures and personnel. However, the Pope places the emphasis elsewhere; for him, the Church is, among other things, what I referred to in the book as the servant, guardian and teacher of joy. He alludes to this idea, for example, in Introduction to Christianity, where he says: "Only someone who has experienced how, regardless of changes in her ministers and forms, the Church raises men up, gives them a home and a hope, a home that is hope—the path to eternal life—only someone who has experienced this knows what the Church is, both in days gone by and now." (2nd ed., Ignatius Press, 2004, p. 344).

Biography of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
All books by or about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Excerpts from books by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Articles about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

The Pope often cites French Catholic authors in his writings and there are similar ideas about the Church in Georges Bernanos's great novel, The Diary of a Country Priest, which, incidentally, teaches us a lot about the nature of Christian joy, despite the novel's initially somewhat somber appearance. In one well-known passage, for example, the curé de Torcy describes the true nature of the Church and tells his younger colleague, the curé d'Ambricourt: "Joy is in the gift of the Church, whatever joy is possible for this sad world to share" (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2002, p. 20).

An important question, which the Pope addresses in his writings, is whether there can be joy in the face of suffering and death. A merely superficial joy cannot withstand these difficult realities, which bring us face to face with the fragility of our lives and the question of ultimate meaning. However, Christian joy is something much more profound. It springs from knowing that the God of love is close to us in all the circumstances of our lives and, as the saints teach us, it is this that enables us to face illness, suffering and death with serenity, confidence and hope. Ultimately, it is Christ's victory over sin and death that makes it possible for joy and suffering to co-exist.

Ignatius Insight: Benedict has often been portrayed as "triumphalistic" and "rigid", and yet isn't the case that his life's work has been marked by a deep and serious dialogue with other religions and belief systems? What stands out to you the most about Benedict's writings about secularism, modernity and skepticism?

Monsignor Murphy: Anyone who has ever met or read Pope Benedict would see just how wide of the mark it is to describe him as "triumphalistic" or "rigid". His theology is marked by a willingness to engage in dialogue, and he is very well informed about the questions posed by contemporary culture and theological debate. In this regard, those who wish to get a better idea of what the Pope is really like would do well to read the first chapter of Fr. Vincent Twomey's recent book Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (Ignatius Press, 2007), where Twomey, who wrote his doctorate under Professor Ratzinger's direction, gives us an interesting description of his former teacher's method of conducting seminars, which were characterized by open debate and respect for the views of others.

The Pope has discussed other religions and belief systems on various occasions, especially in recent years in such works as Many Religions—One Covenant (Ignatius Press, 1999) and Truth and Tolerance (Ignatius Press, 2004). In his writings on these subjects, as well as on secularism, modernity and skepticism, what emerges very clearly is the emphasis on the primacy of truth, without which joy is simply not possible. It is interesting that in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, he stresses that by fidelity to God and to his revealed law, man "comes to experience himself as loved by God and discovers joy in truth and in righteousness—a joy in God which becomes his essential happiness" (no. 9). Man is made for the truth and cannot avoid posing the ultimate questions about meaning, about life and death, about his origins and destiny. In all cultures and religions, we find attempts to answer these questions, and there is no doubt in Ratzinger's mind that Christianity can engage in fruitful dialogue with the world religions on the basis of this common quest for answers and also on the basis of the knowledge about human existence and morality which transcends national, cultural and religious boundaries.

Ratzinger stresses that modern skepticism and relativism, by ignoring the truth-claims of religion and the fundamental human insights about the deeper questions of life, pose a grave danger for man since they risk leading him into a vacuum devoid of meaning, which would prove fatal. Truth is necessary to lead us out of alienation, but if there is no possibility of knowing the truth, man is left without meaning and direction. However, man has an unquenchable thirst for truth, love and meaning; he needs them in order to live. In this context, Christianity reassures us not only that truth and meaning exist but that these are in fact personal and are ultimately to be identified with the God who is love. Ratzinger puts it very strikingly in Introduction to Christianity: "Christian faith lives on the discovery that not only is there such a thing as objective meaning but that this meaning knows me and loves me, that I can entrust myself to it like the child who know that everything he may be wondering about is safe in the 'you' of his mother." (p. 80).

Ignatius Insight: Benedict XVI and John Paul II are continually compared to one another—sometimes fairly (and understandably), sometimes not. What key similarities and differences do you see in their theological works?

Monsignor Murphy: It is clear that Benedict XVI and John Paul II are very different as to temperament, spirituality, background and theological approach. However, they are also very complementary. Pope John Paul was of course more of a philosopher, initially trained in the Aristotelian and Thomist traditions, which left a lasting mark on his thinking. His interest in the human person and in the reality of human love, sexuality and marriage led him to integrate his early philosophical education with the more personalistic insights of phenomenology, thus producing a very interesting and original synthesis of his own, the fruits of which we find in Love and Responsibility, The Acting Person and Theology of the Body. His love for the theatre and his indebtedness to the Carmelite spiritual tradition also contributed to the formation of this great pastor, thinker and man of prayer. Pope John Paul has left a large corpus of writings which will require considerable time to absorb. Among them his teaching on ethical questions, social doctrine and anthropology (the theology of the body) undoubtedly holds a special place and has yet to be fully integrated into the life of the Church and her members.

Pope Benedict's background is rather different. His spirituality is deeply influenced by the liturgical movement, as is clear from his writings on liturgy and his manner of celebrating the Eucharist. His theology has a strong Biblical and Patristic note. It owes much to the Fathers of the Church, especially St. Augustine, and to medieval authors like St. Bonaventure. Even though Pope Benedict's thought is less explicitly philosophical than that of Pope John Paul, it does pay close attention to the questions raised by the Enlightenment and by the thinkers who shaped modern culture. Pope Benedict is also a remarkably clear teacher, with a gift for expressing profound ideas in a very simple way, and so it is no wonder that the many people who attend his Angelus and General Audience talks pay close attention to what he has to say. While he certainly has an interest in moral and social issues, Pope Benedict, in keeping with his own academic background in the area of fundamental and dogmatic theology, has tended to devote more attention to the central articles of the faith, to the dialogue between faith and reason, and to the liturgy, as is clear from his encyclicals on love and on hope, and his very beautiful work on Christ, Jesus of Nazareth.

In short, the teachings of both Popes, in their complementarity, provide us with an extraordinarily profound understanding of the riches of the Christian faith.

Part 2 | Part 1


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