Homily on the Church in the Modern World-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Homily on Gaudium et Spes
Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution
on the Church in the Modern World

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

This is a homily given by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger a month prior to his election as Pope Benedict XVI (March 18, 2005) at St. Peter’s Basilica

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In our Gospel today, we sense the increasing tension between Christ and his opponents, a tension which is progressing, almost inevitably, to the events which lie at the center of our faith: the great mysteries of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection, which are now almost upon us.

In the Gospel, Jesus is confronted by his opponents; they are seeking to put him to death in spite of the good works which he has done — works of mercy, compassion and love. They answer him: “We are not stoning you for a good work, but for blasphemy. You, a man, are making yourself God” (John 10:23).

Jesus’ adversaries cannot deny the good works they have seen, but what they can deny is that these good works point to something more, to something beyond the works themselves.

His adversaries are enraged, not because Christ has healed the blind, but because he has said that these works of mercy point to his unique relationship to the Father: “The Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:38).

Jesus is continually inviting his hearers to believe this truth of his identity, and to become, in him, capable of worshipping the Father “in spirit and truth” (cf. John 4:23). But they reject the significance of what they have seen and heard; they remain on the level of human judging and human justice, and they invoke the law that requires that blasphemy be punished by stoning. The stones in their hands reflect the hardness and the limitations of merely human judgment.

It is a joy for me to celebrate this Mass for you as part of your conference on the “Call to Justice,” the legacy of the pastoral constitution “Gaudium et Spes,” 40 years after its promulgation. In a certain sense, our Gospel today, which brings us to the very threshold of Holy Week, is providentially structured as a meditation on the problem which “Gaudium et Spes” sought to address: that is, the significance of the Christian contribution to the improvement of human welfare, through works of mercy and justice, within the overall mission of the Church.

The fact that your conference has chosen the theme of “The call to justice” is very appropriate.

Classical theology, as we know, understands the virtue of justice as composed of two elements which for Christians cannot be separated; justice is the firm will to render to God what is owed to God, and to our neighbor what is owed to him; indeed, justice toward God is what we call the “virtue of religion”; justice toward other human beings is the fundamental attitude that respects the other as a person created by God.

We should not be surprised if the attitudes toward Jesus that we find in the Gospel continue today in attitudes toward his Church.

It is certainly true that today, when the Church commits herself to works of justice on a human level (and there are few institutions in the world which accomplish what the Catholic Church accomplishes for the poor and disadvantaged), the world praises the Church.

But when the Church’s work for justice touches on issues and problems which the world no longer sees as bound up with human dignity, like protecting the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death, or when the Church confesses that justice also includes our responsibilities toward God himself, then the world not infrequently reaches for the stones mentioned in our Gospel today.

As Christians we must constantly be reminded that the call of justice is not something which can be reduced to the categories of this world. And this is the beauty of the pastoral constitution “Gaudium et Spes,” evident in the very structure of the Council’s text; only when we Christians grasp our vocation, as having been created in the image of God and believing that “the form of this world is passing away … [and] that God is preparing a new dwelling and a new earth, in which justice dwells” (“Gaudium et Spes,” No. 39), can we address the urgent social problems of our time from a truly Christian perspective.

“Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectation of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, prefiguring in some way the world that is to come” (ibid., No. 39).

And so, to be workers of this true justice, we must be workers who are being made just by contact with him who is justice itself: Jesus of Nazareth. The place of this encounter is the Church, nowhere more powerfully present than in her sacraments and liturgy. The celebration of the holy triduum, which we will enter into next week, is the triumph of God’s justice over human judgments.

In the mystery of Good Friday, God is judged by man and condemned by human justice.

In the Easter Vigil, the light of God’s justice banishes the darkness of sin and death; the stone at the tomb (made of the same material as the stones in the hands of those who, in today’s Gospel, seek to kill Christ) is pushed away for ever, and human life is given a future which, in going beyond the categories of this world, reveals the true meaning and the true value of earthly realities.

And we who have been baptized, as children of a world which is still to come, in the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, catch a glimpse of that world and breathe the atmosphere of that world, where God’s justice will dwell for ever.

And then, renewed and transformed by the mysteries we celebrate, we can walk in this world justly, living — as the Preface for Lent says so beautifully — “in this passing world with our heart set on the world that will never end” (Preface for Lent II).

Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal

The biography of Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, begins, of course, with his birth in Bavaria, Germany, on April 16, 1927, Holy Saturday, and baptized the very same day, in the newly blessed Easter water. This special baptism was seen from the beginning of his life as a very special blessing of Divine Providence.

Though he and the Ratzinger family saw Naziism as the spirit of Anti-Christ, Joseph was forced into the German army near the end of World War II. He escaped, surrendered to the US forces, and spent a few months in a POW camp. Upon his release, he and his brother Georg entered the seminary and were ordained priests together on June 29, 1951. After receiving his doctorate in theology from the University of Munich in 1953, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger became a professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Bonn. When Vatican Council II began in 1962, Fr. Ratzinger, only 35 years old at the time, was named chief “peritus” or theological advisor to the Archbishop of Cologne, Joseph Cardinal Frings and accompanied him to all four sessions of the council, having input on the writing of several of the Council Documents. From 1969 until 1977 Fr. Ratzinger taught theology at the University of Regensburg and, from 1969 until 1980, he was a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. In 1972, together with French theologian Henri de Lubac and the Swiss priest Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ratzinger founded the theological journal Communion which now has editions in 14 countries. It is notable that the Polish edition of Communio was brought about by the archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla.

Fr. Joseph Ratzinger was ordained archbishop of Munich-Freising on May 28, 1977 and was created a cardinal priest by Pope Paul VI on June 27, 1977, his titular church in Rome being St. Mary of Consolation (in Tiburtina).

On April 5, 1993 Cardinal Ratzinger was transferred by Pope John Paul II to the order of cardinal bishops as titular bishop of the suburbicarian see of Velletri-Signi. In 1981 Cardinal Ratzinger became the Prefect (head) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department in charge of protecting the sacred deposit of the faith handed on from the apostles. As such, he was Pope John Paul II’s chief assistant in the formulation of the Pope’s teaching and writing. There is perhaps no one who worked more closely with Pope John Paul II during the course of his pontificate. Cardinal Ratzinger would generally have lengthy private meetings with the Pope twice per week. Before his election as Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger also served president of the Pontifical Biblical and Theological Commissions.

On November 6, 1998, Cardinal Ratzinger was appointed Vice-dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals. Prior to the death of Pope John Paul II, he served as a member of the Congregation of Bishops, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, the Council for Christian Unity, the Council for Culture, the Commission Ecclesia Dei, and the Commission for Latin America. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger had a decisive role in the writing of the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” signed in October 1999 by the Holy See and the World Lutheran Federation in Augsburg, Germany. The declaration, one of the most important ecumenical steps since Martin Luther’s split with the Catholic Church in the 16th century, took place thanks to the dialogue held in November 1998 between Cardinal Ratzinger and Lutheran Bishop Johannes Hanselman in Munich.

As he approached his mid-seventies, Cardinal Ratzinger attempted to retire several times, but Pope John Paul II would not accept his resignation.

It seems Pope John Paul II knew God had other plans for the German Cardinal. At 78, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected as Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005, only the second day of the conclave. This speedy election demonstrates a remarkable consensus on the part of the 115 Cardinals who elected him by a two-thirds majority. Their vote was for a defender of the truth, a man of prayer, a humble servant of the servants of God.


Besides his academic articles and official Church documents, the new Pope Benedict XVI provides us with a window into his mind and heart through several books, the Ratzinger Report (1996), The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000), God and the World (2002) and Introduction to Christianity. Joseph Ratzinger is the oldest cardinal to be named pope since Clement XII, who was also 78 when he became pope in 1730. He is the first German pope since Victor II (1055-1057).