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Salvaging Jesus

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

February 25, 2007
From the Toronto Sun

Pope Benedict's new book is a personal presentation of the figure of Christ, allowing readers to wrestle with his views

In a bold, momentous work set to debut -- in Italian -- at the beginning of March, Pope Benedict seeks to salvage the person of Jesus from recent "popular" depictions and to restore Jesus' true identity as discovered in the Gospels in Benedict's new book Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.
Through his crystalline brilliance as a theologian and his firm, personal conviction as a believer, the Pope shares a deeply moving and compelling flesh-and-blood portrait of Jesus and invites readers to encounter, face-to-face, the central figure of the Christian faith.
The Pope, who will turn 80 years old on April 16, began the book during his 2003 summer vacation, giving the final form to the first four chapters in the summer of 2004.
"After my election to the episcopal see of Rome, I used all of my free moments to work on it," he wrote. "Because I do not know how much time and how much strength I will still be given, I have decided to publish the first 10 chapters." Without a doubt the Pope regards this book as extremely important, even urgent.
On the date of the book's announcement late last year, the Vatican also released the preface of this magnum opus. In the preface -- signed "Joseph Ratzinger - Benedict XVI" -- the Pope writes that for decades he has observed an increasing scholarly distinction between the "historical Jesus" and the "Christ of faith" (the idea that Jesus 2,000 years ago in Palestine was not at all the Jesus Christ, Son of God, that faith teaches he was).
Benedict sets out to argue that the Jesus depicted in the Gospels, the Jesus who performed miracles and rose from the dead, is the true Jesus -- that the historical Jesus is the same as the Jesus of faith, that the Gospels are not fables.
The most striking fact of this whole endeavour is that the Pope is not publishing the book as a papal encyclical (the highest level of papal teaching). He is not making the book the final great work of his life, a part of the papal magisterium (official teaching).
"This work is not an absolute act of magisterial teaching, but merely an expression of my personal research into the face of the Lord," Benedict writes in the preface. "Therefore, everyone is free to contradict me." Why is the Pope writing an extremely important book, but choosing quite consciously not to formulate his teaching magisterially in an encyclical? He does not want to publish an encyclical and say, "I as Pope understand Jesus in this way, and I declare that this understanding is part of the Church's magisterial teaching."
Rather the book is a personal presentation of the figure of Jesus by the theologian Joseph Ratzinger who has become Benedict XVI. He wishes to publish a book about Jesus and offer it to the world as a proposal, as a text for readers to wrestle with and even to criticize. If this is not humble submission by a pope, I don't know what is.
With the publication of this book throughout the world next week and in the coming months in various languages, we are witnessing one of the great themes and dramas of the present pontificate unfolding before our very eyes.
Benedict stands before us not as the domineering, authoritarian and stifling "Panzer Kardinal" by which he was so ruthlessly and falsely judged over the past 25 years, nor as the promulgator of infallible papal formulations of doctrine. Rather, he stands before us as a fellow pilgrim, as "Joseph our brother." He stands one with us as the first among many pilgrims of faith-leading people to Jesus Christ.
Doubleday is releasing its English edition of the book in early May.