Father Benedict XVI is a Friend of Jesus Christ

On April 18, 2005, two days after he had just celebrated his 78th birthday, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger delivered the homily Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice to the College of Cardinals gathered at St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. As Dean of the College of Cardinals, it was Ratzinger’s responsibility to highlight to his brother cardinals some spiritual yardsticks that could guide their discernment as they entered into conclave to elect Peter’s Successor. While the buzz word of Ratzinger’s masterful homily became his denunciation of what he styled the “dictatorship of relativism,” the central nexus of Ratzinger’s homily, I believe, lay elsewhere. He was not a prophet of doom unleashing canons of denunciation on culture, but a lover who was eager to share the love of his life, Jesus Christ, because he was convinced that encountering Jesus of Nazareth was a more liberating and joyful experience than atheistic secularism could offer. In other words, the central nexus of Ratzinger’s homily was an invitation into a friendship with Jesus Christ.

Commenting on the Gospel text from John, “I no longer speak of you as slaves…. Instead, I call you friends” (Jn 15: 15), Ratzinger identifies two essential qualities regarding friendship with Jesus Christ: Firstly, there are no secrets between friends, evidenced by Christ entrusting the body of his Church into the hands of weak mortals, in this context, those charged with the solemn responsibility of electing the Bishop of Rome. Christ has made known to them the knowledge of God. He has made known to them everything he has learnt from his Father. Above all, he has entrusted the mysteries, the sacramental economy into their hands. We speak in his name, “This is my Body”; “I absolve you from your sins,” etc. Because the Lord has made us his friends, we have been invited into his power, into his relationship with the Father, so that from this encounter and intimacy, we become active agents of bringing about God’s liberating love to our world that is so much in need of God’s love, and yet often unconscious of this need.

The second reading that Ratzinger gives to friendship with Jesus is the communion of wills: idem velle — idem nolle, same likes, and same dislikes: “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (Jn 15: 14). To be a friend of Jesus is to allow one’s discernment and consciousness to be shaped by Jesus Christ. It is to love what Jesus loves. It is to strive to live daily God’s will. I cannot be a friend of Jesus if my choices, preferences and likes contradict the manifest and revealed will of Jesus. For Ratzinger therefore, I am a friend of Jesus if I am completely open and transparent with Jesus, and daily seek to live a Christ-like life.

As Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger developed this theme of friendship with Jesus Christ especially in his homilies at priestly ordinations in which he presided as Bishop of Rome. To be a friend of Jesus Christ invites one into a greater intimacy of knowledge and communion, for friendship demands intimacy and knowledge. Father Benedict’s new ministry of prayer on behalf of the whole Church certainly mirrors to us his fondness and intimacy with Jesus of Nazareth, the love of Benedict’s life.

To be a friend of Jesus Christ as seen in the life of Benedict XVI, clearly has an ecclesial dimension. How could it be otherwise in Joseph Ratzinger! As Benedict himself said in his Chrism Mass Homily in 2008, “being friends with Jesus is par excellence always friendship with his followers. We can be friends of Jesus only in communion with the whole Christ, with the Head and with the Body; in the vigorous vine of the Church to which the Lord gives life.” Friendship with Jesus Christ is friendship with the Church of Jesus Christ, because owing to the intrinsic link between the Church and Christ, the community of the Church is not an accidental product of time that could perhaps have emerged in its concreteness in a later time that was unrelated to Christ.

Friendship with Jesus Christ likewise implies modelling one’s life after the hypostatic union of Christ, not primarily in terms of the union between Jesus’ humanity and divinity as taught by Council of Ephesus in 431, but in the sense of the identification of mission and person in Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, person and mission coincide, to the extent that to be a friend of Christ is to radically orient one’s life in a pragmatic, existential manner that is caught up in the never completely discernable transcendence that defines and shapes the openness with God, with Christ as the model of mission and person. In large part, Benedict’s deep sense of the symbolic, of a “disposable” anthropology is built on the conviction that his life is simply a standing for Another, a “representative” of Another, a being-in-reference to Another, a symbolic intercommunication meant to keep the window of the world open to the refreshing and life-giving breeze of God.

Because Benedict believes that mission cannot be severed from person, what mattered was not his own person as Joseph Aloysius Ratzinger. He had responded to the call of the Lord as a priest, and the consequence of that response was to cease to live for himself. Like his mentor, Augustine of Hippo, Benedict’s fruitful priestly life was a search for the face of his friend, Jesus Christ, as he himself wrote in the introduction into his trilogy on Jesus – a classic that will be with the Church for ages to come. And still following Augustine, Benedict, as is evident from his Last Testament, found himself, in finding Jesus. It became clear to this Son of Bavaria, with the passage of time, that he was not the only one searching, but Jesus was searching for him as well, even antecedent to Benedict’s conscious search for the Lord. Benedict discerned an aprioriness of love which his friend, Jesus, had for him, a realization that led him to see love as the very being of God.

With Augustine, his theological and spiritual master, Benedict discerned his life as a gift of love, and he was certain that God’s love will never abandon him, since God had fashioned everything in measure, weight, and number (Wis 11:20). The search for God, for the face of the love of his life, became for Joseph Ratzinger the bedrock of genuine anthropology. Christology, as a systematic treatment of the person and work of Jesus, was not his intention, as Benedict forcefully wrote in the foreword to the second volume of his trilogy on Jesus. The reason was simple: Christology, notwithstanding the gains made by the historical-critical method, is often subjected to a sterile demythologization and conceptualization-sounding verbalism in which Jesus of Nazareth becomes someone left in the past, perhaps in stacks of university libraries.

Benedict’s sole desire was not a systematization of Jesus, but to make his friend known and loved, because he had arrived at the certainty that the brokenness that was plaguing the lives of so many post-modern men and women was a desperate cry for help that could only be met by the loving encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. To know Jesus of Nazareth was to enter into the open future of God that is transformative of the present. It was not mere coincidence that when Benedict visited his homeland, his theme for his apostolic visit to Germany was: Where there is God, there is a Future! The subtle implication could not be ignored. Where there is no God, perhaps there is no future!

When Joseph Ratzinger found himself in finding Jesus of Nazareth what did he see? We can dare a response to this question by looking into his spiritual memoirs, his trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, which should be seen as the unmistakable public testament of Ratzinger’s long friendship with Jesus. Clearly at the evening of his earthly life, Ratzinger, like the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel, felt the greatest good he could do for the world was to invite the village of the world to come to the well of Jesus and drink, so that we will never be thirsty again. The alternative is to settle for the mediocre, the minimal, and lesser waters away from Christ; that is, the shallow waters of egoism whereby life is lived for the narrow vision of the self. Standing by Jacob’s well, we suddenly realize that it is not the well that is deep and us having no cistern to draw from the well. The real well is Jesus, and the water he gives to quench our thirst is the friendship with him. Little wonder that the Samaritans begged him to stay longer in their town!

To get a better appreciation of what Joseph Ratzinger’s life-long search had found, we must turn to the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth. In the foreword, Ratzinger writes that it is “only in this second volume do we encounter the decisive sayings and events of Jesus’ life (…) I hope that I have been granted an insight into the figure of our Lord that can be helpful to all readers who seek to encounter Jesus and to believe in him.” For a man who has always read into the fact that his birth took place on Holy Saturday, a symbolic sign of the Church that though longing for the light and hope of the Risen Lord, is not yet there, Easter for Benedict is the real defining moment of his quest for his friend, Jesus of Nazareth. His friend is the Risen One! This is the quintessential Ratzingerian characterization of Jesus of Nazareth. Why? Because hope in the present and for the future is borne from the Risen One, and without hope, the human being has nothing to live for, and life becomes a meaningless, boring routine. The Risen One is the central theological metaphor for Joseph Ratzinger because it is about hope and the future that informs, humanizes and divinizes the present.

This is significant because Joseph Ratzinger is a thorough Augustinian who believes in a broken human nature, a broken world, in which the battle between the two loves of the City of God and the City of men and women is a tangible, unending reality. With the eyes of Easter, Ratzinger is able to diagnose the cure for the malady of what Pascal trenchantly named as diversion and indifference, that not only is eroding the humanity of men and women, but also depriving us of the meaning and joy of life, to the extent that men and women now live with little or no sense of the future.

As we mark the ninetieth year of Father Benedict’s birth that begins Easter Sunday, in gratitude to God for the unique gift of this man, this priest, this bishop, this genius of a mind, this unassuming, meek and shy friend of Jesus Christ, it is important to still pay attention to what this friend of Jesus Christ is telling us about his friend: “Jesus’ Resurrection was about breaking out into an entirely new form of life, into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming, but lies beyond it—a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence—an “evolutionary leap.” In Jesus’ Resurrection, a new possibility of human existence is attained that affects everyone and that opens up a future, a new kind of future, for mankind. Christ’s Resurrection is either a universal event, or it is nothing (1 Cor. 15:16, 20).

And only if we understand it as a universal event, as the opening of a new dimension of human existence, are we on the way toward any kind of correct understanding of the New Testament Resurrection testimony. Jesus has not entered normal human life like Lazarus and the others whom Jesus raised from the dead. “He has entered upon a different life, a new life—he has entered the vast breadth of God himself, and it is from there that he reveals himself to his followers.”

Finally, we now know what Benedict found in finding Jesus: A “new kind of life”; a vast “breadth of God himself”! Jesus has not kept this “new life” from his friend Ratzinger precisely because there are no secrets between friends, and Ratzinger, by submitting his will to Jesus, entered into the same likes and dislikes of his friend, Jesus the Nazarene. With immense gratitude and uplifted hearts, we thank you, Father Benedict, for your eloquent communication of this “new kind of life” to us. Vergelt’s Gott, Father Benedict!

Fr. Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai

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Fr. Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai (AMDG) is a Catholic priest from the Diocese of Mamfe, Cameroon. He is a doctoral candidate in theology and philosophy at Boston College. He also teaches at the Woods School at Boston College.

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