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You, the Church, God: Ratzinger’s sacramental homilies

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 02, 2020 | In Reviews

Few Churchmen have bequeathed to the world as consistent a body of excellent writing and preaching over the course of their careers as has Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). We are indebted to Ignatius Press for its long-extended determination to make this material available in English. Nonetheless, as is true for any scholar, only a relatively few people are going to sit down and read Ratzinger’s major works.

That is why a new small collection of his homilies on the sacraments is such a delight. I am referring to Signs of New Life: Homilies on the Church’s Sacraments.

Here is Ratzinger not for the few, but for the many. Originally published in German in 2017, this well-chosen collection presents two homilies on each of the seven sacraments, book-ended by two more homilies which express more fully the essential sacramentality of the Church. These are not scholarly texts but real words spoken to real congregations on real sacramental occasions. They communicate their wisdom through specific moments in time, and at what we recognize as a genuinely human length. They are marked by a profound simplicity from which we can all benefit as participants in the sacred.

These are homilies delivered at baptisms, first communions, confirmations, weddings, and ordinations; at liturgies for the disabled and for healing; at the consecration of churches and on major feasts which match their themes. Each is roughly six to eight pages long, completely digestible, offering understanding and inspiration without that unwelcome tedium which can creep into extended essays or long addresses.

If I tell readers that the essays were selected and edited by Rev. Dr. Manuel Schlögel, who mentions both the “historical-critical” and “spiritual” exegesis of Scripture, and refers to Ratzinger’s theological effort to “develop the hermeneutics of the sacraments” in a new way, I will already have begun to lose the readers who will most profit from this book. The same result will follow from an emphasis on the Introduction by Bishop Stefan Oster, SDB, who takes a space a little longer than most of the homilies to situate the collection within a dynamic understanding of Catholic sacramentality, under eleven headings.

It is not that these men do not do a good job on assignments which are standard for books of this kind. But this apparatus is essentially irrelevant to the whole point of the collected homilies, which is to immerse the reader in what Joseph Ratzinger had to say to real people in a series of real excursions into sacred time—drawn with a remarkable depth and consistency from a period of more than thirty years.

So skip the introductory efforts. Read one homily per day, or even one over every two or three days or a week. Read them prayerfully. Read them with thanksgiving. This is spiritual reflection, not study, and still less an exercise in covering the bases. Welcome them slowly, meditatively, and even sacramentally. This is between you and God…the Church and God…and you and the Church.

Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI): Signs of New Life: Homilies on the Church’s Sacraments. Ignatius Press, 2020. 140pp paper, $12.71.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wenner1687 - Oct. 18, 2020 3:23 AM ET USA

    A scholar whom I greatly revere has said that the profundity and clarity of Pope Benedict's writings over a lifetime make him an obvious candidate for a Doctor of the Church for the End Times.

  • Posted by: timmccmd3591 - Oct. 12, 2020 11:24 PM ET USA

    Reading B16's body of writings as far back as documented is like taking a drink from a clear, fresh, pure mountain stream. Reading pulp literature that comes from Rome today is like looking at a polluted creek. Ratzinger had formed a moral and philosophical (Catholic as in the Magisterium) outline from which he framed all his writings, all his thinking. It grew, evolved, but these were refinements. We now see someone who really makes it up as he goes; no discernible underpinnings.