Tim Perry looks across a "tragic divide now over five centuries old" and sees the Spirit of God at work in the life of the former pope who died last week.
Pope Benedict XVI’s funeral is over. His body has been committed to the Vatican crypts and his soul has been commended to God who gave it. His emeritus status has at last been set aside. I am grateful to the editors of Faith Today for the opportunity to reflect here on the importance of his life, and specifically for Canadian Evangelicals.
For me, the reflection cannot help but be deeply personal. I began considering him someone to learn from in 2010 when his book The Spirit of the Liturgy revolutionized my understanding of what worship is and is for. Since then many of his books have found their way to my shelves, and I have also benefitted his teaching documents as Pope, regularly. Over the last decade, as I have read and written about his work, my work as a theologian has been enriched and my faith has been deepened. All of that, mind you, as I remain a Protestant theologian, ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
First, I have been shaped by Benedict’s biblicism. It might seem odd that a Protestant would choose to learn how to read the Bible from him, but that is what has happened. Readers, whether of his academic work or his writing aimed at more general audiences, are immediately struck by Benedict’s commitment to be a theologian of the Bible. The Bible, for Benedict, is one book by one Author for one audience. It is a species of Divine address.
This is not to say that modern theologians, pastors and preachers are free to ignore critical biblical studies. It is to insist, however, that after all the critical work has been done, readers have only begun to listen to and for the voice of the Spirit. By the inspiring and illuminating Spirit, the Father gives us His living and saving Word through the words of holy Scripture – to the degree that those human words are divine words and are to be savoured as such.
Does this strike you as simplistic? Far from it! It is the hard-won simplicity that can be found only on the far side of criticism. And it has revolutionized my reading and preaching.
Second, I have been formed his worship. Raised in the cradle of revivalist evangelicalism, I learned the unspoken assumption that worship (by which we usually meant music) was for something. Often, it was for inducing some sort of mood or response in the worshippers which prepared them for what was really important: the sermon.
For Benedict, worship is about God. It is about participating in the eternal self-offering of the Son to the Father in the Spirit. It is not for anything except that. It cannot be altered willy-nilly, for the sake of evangelism, emotional engagement, or – that word Evangelicals so love – relevance. Worship is to be beautiful because God is beautiful. Worship is to be reverent because God is holy. Worship is to exalt Christ, who alone will draw the world to Himself.
Third, I have been shaped by his simple spirituality. Like his great predecessor, Pope St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI was an academic. He was most at home in the lecture hall, as his biography makes abundantly clear. But his academic work is suffused with a simple love of Jesus that is evident on every page.
Moreover, again like St. John Paul II, Benedict wore his academic credentials lightly and could communicate the faith simply without sacrificing intellectual integrity. So it is that his papal documents, especially his homilies and catecheses, are remarkably accessible.
Throughout his long career, further, he never so far as I know disparaged the simple faith of ordinary people. His own last words, “Jesus, I love you,” remind all of us that if we would enter the Kingdom, we will do so as little children.
None of this, finally, is written to ignore or diminish the Reformation. It is rather to recognize a life – one lived across a tragic divide now over five centuries old – in which the Spirit of God seemed to be savingly at work. A life that can and should be commended as an example across Christian confessions even as we thank God for the gifts given in and through it.
Tim Perry is professor of theology and church ministries at Providence Theological Seminary in Otterburne, Man. (on sabbatical until June 2023). He is also a member of the Catholic-Evangelical dialogue sponsored by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Photo of former pope Benedict from 2013 by Mazur/Catholic News UK used with permission (Creative Commons).