One of my earliest recollections of Pope Benedict was when he appeared on a show on EWTN—I believe The World Over, hosted by Raymond Arroyo. Pope Benedict was then still Cardinal Ratzinger and was Pope John Paul II’s go-to person for many important matters. When asked about his future plans, Cardinal Ratzinger replied that he was old, and that he really wanted to retire and write books. The problem, however, as he stated it, was that the Pope was older than he, so he could hardly make a good case for retirement. Ironically, the man who wanted retirement, was later chosen for perhaps the most challenging position in the world; he became the next Pope.
The irony and poignancy of this situation is reminiscent of the life of John Henry Newman. Although Newman was never made Pope (surely a thought that would have horrified him!), he was a man who, like Pope Benedict, sought the quiet academic life rather than the life of controversy and church politics. Nevertheless, he, like Benedict, was forced for much of his life to deal with difficult issues in the Church and to serve in leadership capacities that he did not want. Anglo-Catholics frequently asked Newman to help them decide whether or not to convert to the Roman Church, he was once sued for libel, he felt it necessary to defend his integrity by writing the Apologia, he was asked to run a new University and later a school at the Oratory, and of course he was made a Cardinal.
Both Newman and Pope Benedict and were at heart learners and teachers, and both men shared some of the same interests. Newman’s first vocation was as a classicist, a teacher of Greek and Latin, serving at Oxford. He was a skilled teacher, and he was devoted to his students. Newman read all of the major Greek and Roman authors in the original. He particularly adored Vergil and would often cite his poetry, not only the Aeneid, but also the Georgics and Eclogues. Newman loved Greek tragedy and the Greek historians, and he himself wrote poems in Latin and occasionally Greek. Newman and a colleague even wrote a short book on Greek accentuation, because they deemed the available text too expensive for students.
The Greek, and to a lesser extent Latin, Fathers proved a sort of bridge between Newman’s life as a teacher of the classics and his role as a theologian and church historian. While still an Anglican, he resolved to research the Church Fathers in his search for the Via Media between Catholicism and Protestantism. He particularly studied Athanasius, whose work enriched the Nicene Creed. From Athanasius and other Eastern Fathers, he came to have a rich understanding of theosis or divinization, whereby the believer partakes by grace of the qualities of God.
Joseph Ratzinger also was and remained an academic at heart. When he became Cardinal Ratzinger, many were surprised, since he had had limited pastoral experience. Although Ratzinger’s teaching role was primarily theology, before he reached the higher echelons in the Vatican, he, too, had a thorough knowledge of Greek and Latin. He was, of course, familiar with scholastic theology, with its Aristotelean bent. But he was also a lover of the Neoplatonic side of Christianity seen in the Eastern Fathers and in the early Western Fathers, such as Augustine. Ratzinger’s dissertation was on Augustine, and his love of that saint’s Neoplatonic approach can be seen in his article “The Contemplation of Beauty,” which he wrote as Pope. He was thoroughly at home with the Latin language, and there can be little doubt that his love for the richness of Latin contributed to his championing of the traditional Latin Mass.
With both St. John Henry Newman and Pope Benedict XVI, we see how God uses the gifts of intelligence and learning. Both men contributed greatly to the intellectual milieu of their age, as they applied their keen minds and knowledge of theology and history to their own times. God stretched both men, certainly in ways that they would not have chosen for themselves. Their willingness to cooperate with the vocation of grace led them unto a bigger stage than they were naturally accustomed to. Newman and Pope Benedict’s faithful generosity enabled the light of Christ to shine through them, upon others, ever more brightly. May we through their example go and do likewise.