Brennan Pursell’s Benedict of Bavaria is a warm, richly descriptive, and insightful portrait of Joseph Ratzinger, from his birth in his native Bavaria to his present day mission in the Chair of Peter.
If a biographer is a kind of portraitist in words, Pursell treats his subject with the deep respect, affinity, and understanding of the best of artists. As he readily shares in his Introduction, there is a personal connection at work, a sense of gratitude and indebtedness to one whose writings had such an impact on his own conversion from a “California hedonist” to a committed Catholic. Perhaps due to this sense of personal connection, Pursell does not paint Benedict just from the outside, as a stranger would do. He paints him also from the inside, from an acquaintance born of long hours of study and personal contact with the places and people of Ratzinger’s homeland.
Ratzinger “from the inside” is a man who was shaped by the land, people, liturgies, and events of his upbringing, all of which Pursell captures with detail and colorful description in passages like this:
This style of art and architecture is exuberant and dramatic, at once earthly and heavenly, joyous, uplifting, and yet violent, usually preferring the fulsome over the sparse. The baroque belongs in Bavaria. The color scheme is drawn from the wildflowers found in the mountains, valleys, and fertile flood plains: pale yellow from the primrose, clover, and marigold; the thistle’s soft purple; pink from the alpine rose; liverwort’s pale blue; white and yellow of the aster; and the soft orange of the “Bocksbart” and “Klappertopf”, names that sound too good to be translated. The azure blue of the “Enzian” is too strong of a color for a house’s façade, but you find it sometimes in the Virgin’s cloak, painted on a carved figurine. The stucco covered walls of the houses and churches seem to take their white, cream, yellow, pink, purple, and blue straight from the uncut fields.
But the sights, sounds, textures, and smells of Bavaria, along with the wonderful selection of personal anecdotes from those who knew Ratzinger at various times, are only the outer part of the story. Pursell also gives his readers a window into the written legacy of one of the world’s greatest teachers, allowing Benedict to speak in his own words as the chronology unfolds.
At times, a specific event in the chronology opens up an opportunity to present the pope’s thought on a specific theme. For example, a chapter on the holy Marian shrine of Altoetting gives Pursell the occasion to present some key insights from one of Benedict’s most important books, The Spirit of the Liturgy. Throughout the chapter, teaching and description are woven together in a mutually enriching way that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. The Spirit of the Liturgy helps us to understand “from the inside” what Ratzinger experiences in his celebration of the Mass, and the description of Altoetting helps us to put ourselves in his shoes and experience all the sights and sounds of that holy place as it may have shaped him in his youth. This integrated approach helps us to gain a deeper understanding of the Pope as a person whose experiences and ideas shape each other, and whose heart and mind work very much together.
When presenting a portrait of a thinker such as Benedict, it is of utmost importance to be able to convey his ideas with maximum fidelity and clarity. Pursell’s gift for explaining concepts in an accessible way makes for smooth reading and swift understanding. A natural teacher, he is capable of summing up the central thesis of each of Ratzinger’s works in one or two paragraphs so that the reader feels equipped with an introductory knowledge of the essential points—and inspired to read more deeply. A judicious sprinkling of well-chosen quotes allows the reader to “hear” the voice of Benedict and get a firsthand sense of the depth, breadth, lucidity, and relevance of his thought.
Not everyone will like this biography, for one simple reason: it is tailored to Americans. As a good teacher would, Pursell illustrates some ideas with examples that apply specifically to American suburban culture, in order to show specific points where Ratzinger’s perspective could enlarge our spiritual and cultural horizons. Americans will find these points helpful (and often pointedly humorous), but other English-speaking readers might find them less a propos. Still, these cultural applications are a faithful elucidation of Ratzinger’s thought, and they make the message hit home in an effective way.
From start to finish, Benedict of Bavaria develops the portrait of a man who rightly deserves our admiration, respect, and esteem. Under Pursell’s capable pen, Pope Benedict emerges as a great gift for our times, a beacon of truth, dialogue, openness, respect, and humility—a true man of God, faithful servant of the Church, and well-beloved son of Catholic Bavaria.
Benedict of Bavaria is a Circle Press book.
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