An Expanded Petrine Ministry?: The Pope Emeritus and the Petrine Office

On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by announcing his resignation from the papacy. The historic moment was described by Cardinal Angelo Sodano as “a bolt from out of the blue,” underlined by a very real lightning bolt which struck the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica later that evening.[1] With the subsequent election of Pope Francis, the Church has seen—for the first time since the Western Schism­­­—the spectacle of two living Popes, each retaining the title, style, and dress of the Roman Pontiff. Although Benedict has largely remained out of the limelight since the succession of Francis, to whom he has promised obedience,[2] the novelty of the present situation has naturally prompted various attempts at theological explanation for the very existence of a “Pope emeritus.” One theory holds that in renouncing the Petrine office, Pope Benedict has in fact taken up a new office in the Church, a “Johannine office”[3] complementary to that of Peter. Another theory maintains that the papal resignation has de facto effected an “expanded [Petrine] ministry—with an active member and a contemplative member.”[4]

Although neither theory is entirely satisfactory and all speculation must remain provisional until the Church rules on the question, the better theological explanation seems to be the second. First, there is no such thing as a “Johannine office” in the history of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the words of Benedict at the time of his resignation, as well as the testimony of Archbishop Gänswein, indicate that he understands himself not to have instituted a new office, but to have continued in a limited capacity to exercise the munus Petrinum, the office of Peter, in his service of prayer for the Church. Finally, the official legislation on bishops emeritusissued by the Congregation for Bishops under Pope John Paul II in 2004, offers a possible theological parallel, insofar as those bishops are said also to continue to participate in the munus episcoporum after retirement.

The office of Peter is established by Christ himself: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18). As the Second Vatican Council reiterated, Christ “placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion.”[5] The Pope is “the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church.”[6] This headship and primacy of Peter, attested since the earliest days of Christianity by such witnesses as St. Clement of Rome (c. 80 AD), is of necessity a unique office in the hierarchical constitution of the Church. As Pope Boniface VIII’s Unam sanctam has it, “This one and unique Church, therefore, has not two heads, like a monster, but one body and one head, namely, Christ, and his vicar, Peter’s successor.”[7] There is neither historical precedent nor theological warrant for a parallel and complementary “Johannine office,” any more than a Matthean, Barnabite or Pauline office, alongside the munus Petrinum. On the contrary, these apostles and their successors exercise the common munus apostolorum cum et sub Petro, with and beneath Peter.[8] Therefore, Robert Moynahan’s claim that Pope Benedict, after his resignation, “would now carry out a slightly different office, a ‘Johannine’ office,”[9] raises more problems than it solves. There exists no such office for Benedict to accept, and the idea that the Pope emeritus “would carry out the office of John, not of Peter”[10] effectively establishes a second “pontificate of John,” giving the body of Christ a second head.

At the time of his resignation, Pope Benedict indicated that his “strengths, due to an advanced age, [were] no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry [munus Petrinum]” and therefore declared his decision to “renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter.”[11] He was clear about the juridical effects of his resignation: “The See of Saint Peter … will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked.”[12] However, having once accepted the Petrine ministry, Benedict says, 

I was engaged always and forever by the Lord … The ‘always’ is also a ‘for ever; – there can no longer be a return to the private sphere. My decision to resign the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences, and so on. I am not abandoning the cross, but remaining in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord. I no longer bear the power of office for the governance of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, in the enclosure of Saint Peter.[13]

The active exercise of the munus Petrinum, then, including the power of governance proper to that office for the governance of the Church, belongs entirely to Benedict’s successor in the See of Peter: “The plena potestas, the plenitudo potestatis [full power, incarnate authority] is in the hands of Pope Francis. He is the man who has right now the succession of Peter.”[14] Benedict, however, sees himself as retaining a principal part of the munus Petrinum, “the service of prayer” for the Church. This aspect of the Petrine ministry was bestowed by the Lord in his final commission to St. Peter: “Strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). To pray for the Church as her head is not a new “Johannine office,” but the properly contemplative dimension of the one and only Petrine office. Therefore, Archbishop Gänswein maintains that Benedict “has not abandoned the Office of Peter — something which would have been entirely impossible for him after his irrevocable acceptance of the office in April 2005.”[15] Rather, since the election of Francis, the Petrine office has become de facto an “expanded ministry—with an active member and a contemplative member.”[16] There is indeed one head of the Church, Pope Francis, the legitimately elected Roman Pontiff who possesses the plenitude potestatis and exercises the active ministry of Peter. But there is also one “Pope emeritus,” sharing in the contemplative dimension of the Petrine ministry. 

For his part, Pope Francis has expressed his gratitude for this service: “Benedict is in the monastery praying … He is the wise grandfather. He is the man that protects my shoulders and back with his prayer.”[17] Indeed, Francis has speculated in the future, there may be multiple Popes emeritus “like the bishops emeriti … Possibly there could be two or three.”[18] Therefore, the task ahead for theologians and canon lawyers in the Curia is the official legislation of the ministry of “Pope emeritus,” as the Congregation for Bishops issued in 2004 for bishops emeritus. The Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops indicates that the reigning bishop and bishops emeritus are to maintain a fraternal relationship: “The diocesan Bishop will value the good that the Bishop Emeritus can accomplish, for the Church in general and for the local diocese in particular, through his prayer, perhaps through suffering accepted with love, through the example of his priestly life and through his counsel when it is requested.”[19] The bishop emeritus, for his part, is instructed to “avoid every attitude and relationship that could even hint at some kind of parallel authority to that of the diocesan Bishop, with damaging consequences for the pastoral life and unity of the diocesan community,” since “the diocesan Bishop alone is the head of the diocese, responsible for its governance.”[20]

In summary, to speak of a “Johannine office” is inappropriate with respect to the Pope emeritus. This office does not exist in the tradition of the Church, and its institution would only raise the difficulty of a novel “parallel authority” alongside that of Peter. The better theological interpretation, advanced by Gänswein and indicated by Benedict’s own self-understanding, is that the Pope emeritus continues to be of service to the Church in his prayer, suffering, example, and counsel, exercising the contemplative dimension of the munus Petrinum in strengthening his brethren, including his own successor. This situation, although unprecedented in the See of Peter, closely reflects the reality lived by diocesan bishops and bishops emeritus around the world.

The Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops specifies the “rights of the Bishop Emeritus in relation to the Episcopal Munera,”[21] which include preaching and the celebration of the sacraments, as well as sustenance and a place to live within the diocese he has served. The question to be resolved in future legislation concerns precisely those rights of the Pope emeritus in relation to the munus Petrinum. Will future Popes emeritus be permitted to continue to live in the Vatican after retirement, or to speak publicly and publish written works, as Benedict has done? These are thorny issues that the Church must soon answer, guided by the principles of fraternal relationship and rights of bishops emeritus outlined above by the Congregation for Bishops, always taking care to safeguard the primacy of the one Successor of Peter as the source of unity of the Church.


[1] Diane Montagna, “Complete English Text: Archbishop Georg Gänswein’s May 20 ‘Expanded Petrine Office’ Speech,” Aleteia (blog), May 30, 2016,

[2] “Full text: Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Armenia,” Catholic News Agency, June 26, 2016,

[3] Dr. Robert Moynahan, “Letter #44, 2015: Benedict in Prayer,” Inside the Vatican (blog), October 15, 2015,

[4] Montagna, “Gänswein’s May 20 ‘Expanded Petrine Office’ Speech.”

[5] Paul VI, Lumen gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church] (November 21, 1964), §18.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Boniface VIII, Bull Unam sanctam (November 18, 1302), in Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum: Compendium of Creeds, Definitions and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals, eds. Peter Hünermann, Robert Fastiggi, Anne Englund Nash, 43rd edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 872. 

[8] Congregation for Bishops, Apostolorum successores [Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops] (February 22, 2004)introduction. See also §11.

[9] Moynahan, “Letter #44.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Benedict XVI, Declaratio (10 February 2013). 

[12] Ibid.

[13] Benedict XVI, General Audience (27 Feb 2013). Emphasis added.

[14] Maike Hickson, “Interview: Archbishop Gänswein on Benedict, The Two Popes, and Prophecy,” OnePeterFive (blog), June 28, 2016,

[15] Montagna, “Gänswein’s May 20 ‘Expanded Petrine Office’ Speech.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Armenia,” Catholic News Agency.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Apostolorum Successores, §226.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Apostolorum Successores, §227.

The First Key of Prayer

“True prayer, like true love, is a decision, not a feeling.”

Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB, “Twelve Keys of Prayer,” in Prayer of the Hours, pp. 231-2

To the Neophytes

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

Today, at the conclusion of the Easter octave, we heard this beautiful entrance antiphon: “Quasi modo geniti infantes…” “Like newborn children, cry out for the clean and pure milk of the spirit!” (1 Peter 2:2). You, my dear brothers and sisters, are those children, who eight days ago emerged from the fount of Baptism as newborn sons and daughters of God. For eight days, we have rejoiced in calling you fellow members of God’s family, the Church! Now it is our task to teach you something of what it means to live this new life in Christ. 

St. Peter has taught us the first and most essential lesson: “Cry out for the clean and pure milk of the spirit!” What is this “spiritual milk” but the grace of the Risen Lord? And how do we cry out for it but by prayer? Little children do not hesitate to cry out to their parents in every need. If they are hungry, thirsty, tired, lonely, sad, or afflicted in any way whatsoever, they naturally cry out for Mommy or Daddy to fix it! 

Crying out is a necessity, not just for newborns and neophytes, but for all who would like to “change and become like little children” (Matthew 18:3)—and all of us must do this if we want to enter into the kingdom of Heaven! Therefore, like little children, cry out to the Lord in every need. Set aside moments of prayer throughout your day to lift your heart to Him, to pour out your heart to God, with all of your experiences, pains, desires, hopes and joys. 

However, there are two truths you must remember. First, “true prayer, like true love, is a decision, not a feeling.” You may go to your prayer and feel that nothing changes. Very well! Feelings come and go. What is important is that you choose to pray and remain faithful to your commitment, continuing to come to Him with childlike simplicity even when it feels dry and God seems far away. It is in the dryness and absence that the gold of faith and trust is forged. 

Second, we do not “‘use’ prayer to deal with crises or passing desires.” The point of prayer is to be with God, “to be alone with Him who we know loves us” (St. Teresa). Like any relationship of love, the point is not what we get out of it. On any given day, prayer may make us feel better, or it may not, just as the company of a friend (or spouse!) may delight us one day and annoy us the next. However you feel, simply tell the Lord about your distress and leave it in His hands. His solution may not look like what we would have planned or designed for ourselves, but isn’t that often the way with children? He knows how to deal with our crises better than we do.  Our part is to cry out … and leave the rest to Him.


“The liturgy requires an artistic transposition, originating in the spirit of faith, of the music of the cosmos into human music that glorifies the Word made flesh.”

Ratzinger, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy, pp. 480-93

To the Parish Choir

Let’s be honest: church music has been in a state of crisis for many years now. Those of you who lived through those years after the Second Vatican Council know what I am talking about. One Sunday, there was a parish choir which sang Gregorian chants and beautiful, traditional hymns in four-part harmony. The next Sunday, there was a folk band strumming out feel-good music on banjos and guitars. In this parish, we are blessed to have an excellent choir once again, devoted to singing beautiful music for the glory of God and to leading our people in prayer and praise. Nonetheless, we must ask— What happened in those years? Why did the Church change her music at all? 

On one level, it’s a pastoral question. The Second Vatican Council did, in fact, call for the actual participation of the faithful in the liturgy. Certain liturgists took this to mean that everyone in church must be doing something at all times. They took it as a pastoral need, therefore, to disband the old choirs, with their “elitist” music, and start singing simple tunes so that everyone could join in. Music was reduced to something purely functional, “community-building” at our community meal. Beauty, artistic value, was relatively low on the priority list. 

However, there is a deeper theological reason for the change, and that is a resurgence of iconoclasm. Iconoclasm is a perennial temptation in the Church. It is as old as the origins of Christianity, when Christians left the Temple to worship in the house churches. Many theologians regarded Christianity as opposed to Temple, cult, and priesthood and concluded that Christian worship must therefore be “profane,” commonplace. The spirit of iconoclasm sprung up in the East in the seventh and eighth centuries with the destruction of icons; it ravaged the West after the Protestant Revolt, when John Calvin and his followers whitewashed churches, toppled statues, and desecrated the Blessed Sacrament in the name of a purer, reformed Church. 

Like the iconoclasts of old, many Catholics today are convinced that “Puritan functionalism” and a liturgy of the commonplace is truer to the original spirit of Christianity. But they are mistaken. “Church music with artistic pretensions is not contrary to the nature of Christian liturgy but, rather, is a necessary way of expressing belief in the universal glory of Jesus Christ” (Ratzinger, 491). Our liturgy, like the Tempe liturgy of old, is supposed to be glorious, “disclosing … the glorification of God that lies hidden in the cosmos and causing it to resound” (ibid).  To do this, sacred music must be beautiful, the words must be comprehensible, and the beauty of words and melody together must draw the hearts of the listeners upwards to the harmonies of heaven. This is noble work. Psallite sapienter!


“The liturgical year is the life of Christ lived out in liturgical time … from his Birth to the Passion, from his Death to the Resurrection, and from his Ascension to Pentecost.”

Fr. Samuel Weber, “Introduction to the Liturgical Year,” 11-12

On a Catholic Radio Program

The Roman Catholic liturgy is made up of sacred signs. Signs point to something beyond themselves. And in the liturgy, all the signs—the sounds, the smells, the sacred music, the vestments, the sacred art and architecture—point in some way to the mystery of Jesus Christ, our beloved Lord, God and man, who suffered, died, and was buried, and rose again for our salvation.

Now there are signs which are more than signs. We call these sacraments. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass contains the sacrament of sacraments, the Body and Blood of Our Lord., which are not merely a sign, but the Real Presence of Jesus. But there are many other sacred signs which, although they are not sacraments, help to dispose us to receive the grace of the sacraments. 

Think of holy water, which reminds us of our baptism, when we were cleansed from sin and born into the new life of grace. Holy water is a sign of our need today, and every day, for repentance, cleansing, redemption and grace. Or think of the ashes sprinkled on our heads at the beginning of Lent: “Dust you are, and unto dust you shall return. Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The ashes are a sign of our mortality, but also of life. On our own, we are only dust, but it is from this dust that Jesus raises up, making us participants in his glory, if we only allow our lives to be renewed through his mercy. 

The liturgical year is the Church living out of the life of Christ, from his Birth in Bethlehem to the Passion, from his Death on Calvary to the Resurrection, and from his Ascension into heaven to the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The season of Lent corresponds to the forty days Jesus spent in the desert after his baptism, praying and fasting, acquiring the strength to reject the temptations of Satan and to carry out his ministry of mercy. With Jesus, the Church enters the desert, praying, fasting, and doing works of mercy.

It is no coincidence that this season of Lent occurs in the spring, when the world is waking up again after a long winter. The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, yet in our churches things are more austere. We have no flowers, less music. The priest and the altar are dressed in somber violet vestments rather than joyful white or gold. The Passover is celebrated in spring, and the Lord’s Passion and death on the cross occurred on the Passover Sabbath. The spiritual significance is clear: through death to life. The natural world speaks of the eternal life to come, but the only way to that life is through a prior death. There is no Easter without Lent.

Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Symphony of Sources

Among the greats of modern Catholic theology, Hans Urs von Balthasar stands apart as “the twentieth century’s premier ressourcement theologian.”[1] His theological work, radiating out from its radically Christological and Trinitarian heart, scanning the self-revelation of God according to the categories of the beautiful, the good and the true, and touching upon ecclesiology, missiology, eschatology and all the attendant concerns of the Church in the modern world, actively resists easy categorization. It is perhaps unsurprising that, “when set against the wider background of twentieth-century theology, the figure of Hans Urs von Balthasar comes across as rather isolated, even lonely.” Like the theology of the Fathers, Balthasar’s work is sui generis, occupying a niche of his own creation. However, he is no idle innovator; Balthasar is in fact “both intensely traditional (perhaps the most traditional of all twentieth-century theologians) and yet also astonishingly, startingly idiosyncratic.[2] His thought emerges from deep within the living tradition of the Fathers and of High Scholasticism, the sources from which he sought to renew the Church. This paper will trace Balthasar’s most significant “sources of renewal” among the Fathers, as well as the German Romantics, high culture and contemporary theologians, before concluding with a summary of his contributions to the development of theology today.

Balthasar was born in 1905 into a highly cultured family in Lucerne, Switzerland. His aristocratic origins and cultured upbringing may account in some measure for a deep, lifelong affinity for music, literature and the arts; his doctorate, for example, was in Germanistik, “a compound discipline of literature and philosophy … analyzing and evaluating texts in their philosophical, spiritual, and affective tenor, as somehow indicators of wider cultural trends.”[3]Henri de Lubac is quoted as saying that Balthasar was “probably the most cultured man in Europe” at the time.[4] This is significant since, as Aidan Nichols has it, “the style is the man,”[5] and Balthasar’s unique style is deeply indebted to his cultural background. For example, a key theme of Balthasar’s theology is that “truth is symphonic,” that, just as “all the instruments” in an orchestra “are integrated in a whole sound,”[6] so truth is a “polyphony of revelation,”[7] a multiplicity of voices in a “unity of composition” which “comes from God.”[8]

Balthasar’s lifelong attentiveness to cultural trends and questions may also provide an insight into his preference, when he later began his philosophical and theological studies, for the theological method of the Church Fathers over that of the Neo-Scholastics. The early twentieth century had made a clear “separation between ‘secular’ and theological studies,”[9] resulting in a divorce between the real human questions arising in the broader culture and the abstract, often self-referential answers provided by academic theology. Balthasar, by contrast, felt that the urgent task of the theologian was to “respond,” from deep within the Catholic tradition and the sources of revelation, to the “cultural situation” of the modern world.[10] For Balthasar, “theological questions were not separable from human questions.”[11] It is unsurprising, then, that in addition to his extracurricular reading of contemporary philosophers such as Blondel, Bergson, and Heidegger, Balthasar came to favor the style of Patristic theology over the “sawdust Thomism”[12] which comprised his official theological education: “For the Fathers, as for Balthasar, it was only obvious that Christ would have something to say to the philosophical questions of the day, insofar as, in Christ, God’s dialogue with humanity was now to occur in the context of human language and culture.”[13] In his theology classes as a Jesuit scholastic, he was known to sit through lectures with his ears stuffed, reading the works of Augustine,[14] and his earliest works as a theologian include monographs on Maximus the Confessor, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa, among others. 

Far from merely historical explorations, Balthasar’s early efforts at ressourcement were marked very much by his concern to answer the live questions of his day: “Balthasar reads the Fathers from the setting of his own evangelical strategies, tailored as these were to modernity’s cultural situation.”[15] He was critical of a certain naïve nostalgia in vogue among other ressourcement theologians, a tendency to “look on the time of the Fathers” with “an almost Romantic longing.”[16] Rather than giving way to the desire to return to a former golden age of Christendom, Balthasar sought to apply the thought of past generations of Christians to the modern world, assured that the vitality of Patristic theology would take on a new relevance in the light of present questions. 

Inspired by German Romanticism since his Germanistik days, Balthasar was also keenly interested as a theologian in the potential of the affective faculties of the soul to discover truth, or better, to be impressed by the truth through a perception of its splendor. Conscious that “the exact sciences no longer have any time to spare” for beauty, “nor does theology, in so far as it increasingly strives to follow the method of the exact sciences and to envelope [sic] itself in their atmosphere,”[17] Balthasar embarked on a sixteen-volume theological trilogy which would become his life’s masterwork. Beginning with The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Balthasar aimed “to complement the vision of the true and the good with that of the beautiful”[18] and thereby to restore aesthetics to its rightful place within the science of theology. For Balthasar, beauty (pulchrum) is “the manner in which God’s goodness (bonum) gives itself and is expressed by God and understood by man as the truth (verum).”[19] Beauty compels us, draws us out of ourselves spontaneously; it “brings with it a self-evidence that enlightens without mediation.”[20] Here, too, one detects the Patristic influence on Balthasar, particularly that of Gregory of Nyssa, who understood that beauty is a transcendental and that the attractiveness of the beautiful has the power to draw the soul upward to the contemplation of divine truths:

When the soul is moved towards what is naturally lovely, it seems to me that this is the sort of passionate desire with which it is moved. Beginning with the loveliness it sees, it is drawn upwards to what is transcendent. The soul is forever inflaming its desire for what is hidden, by means of what it has already grasped. For this reason, the ardent lover of beauty understands what is seen as an image of what he desires, and yearns to be filled with the actual substance (χαρακτήρ] of the archetype.[21]

Therefore, Balthasar chose to begin his theological trilogy by considering God’s self-revelation as beautiful, rather than as good or true, which the latter parts of the trilogy, Theo-Dramatics and Theo-Logic, would address. He was aware that “without beauty … the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out,” while the logic embodied in scholastic syllogisms becomes “a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone.”[22] Together, theological aesthetics, dramatics and logic would offer a truly symphonic approach to Christian revelation: “The pulchrum, with which Balthasar opens his trilogy, is the primordial appearing of love’s gratuity, which, as such, contains both the good (the beautiful is an appearing of gratuity) and the true (the beautiful is an appearing of gratuity, which therefore appeals to logos).”[23]

In addition to the Fathers, the Romantics, and the high culture of his youth, Balthasar was profoundly influenced by two contemporary theologians. The greatest influence on his early theological work was no doubt that of Henri de Lubac, the great patristic scholar and Balthasar’s “old friend and master”[24] at Lyons, whose book Catholicisme: les aspects sociaux du dogme he regarded as “the key book of twentieth-century Catholic theology.”[25] For Balthasar, it proposed a compelling answer to the problem of the place of Christianity in an increasingly post-Christian and secularized world. De Lubac traced the roots of modern secularism back to the medieval philosophy of nominalism, which first introduced the concept of pura natura, human nature without grace, and in turn gave rise to “the neo-scholastic notion that human beings have two separate ends, a natural end—happiness in this world—which can be achieved through their natural powers, and a supernatural end—the face-to-face vision of God—which can only be achieved through superadded grace.”[26] For de Lubac, the divide between nature and supernature already contained the seeds of practical atheism; a straight line could be traced from the pura natura of the nominalists through the excessive rationalism and objectivism of neoscholasticism and on to the secularism of modernity. As a remedy, de Lubac proposed a return to the Alexandrian theology of nature and grace, which held that man is “inherently open to the supernatural”[27] and that therefore, while grace is “a good superadded to the natural good,”[28] the divine end to which grace is the means is not a “finality superadded to natural finality,”[29] but present from the beginning. Human beings do not have two ends, but one, namely, to see God. Grace, therefore, was not something extrinsic to human nature, but in fact the fulfillment of that nature, which is “by nature ordered to an end that it is not equipped by nature to attain.”[30]

Balthasar followed de Lubac’s theology closely and appreciated the potential it offered for dialogue with secular modernity: if man had a natural openness to the supernatural, then “the modern period … was not, for all of its forgetfulness of God, any more theologically neutral than any period before it.”[31] However, he was not unaware of the difficulties presented by this revolution in the theology of nature and grace. In a book-length tribute to his former teacher, he offered a cautious critique, saying that de Lubac’s theory of nature and grace was “not completely rounded out,”[32]and later wondered whether it “can hold up when all its implications are thought through to their logical conclusion.”[33]In particular, he observed that it had the potential to undermine the gratuitousness of grace, “somehow making grace a requirement of nature”[34] and collapsing the distinction between the two. 

Balthasar was also influenced by the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, whom he came to know during his time as chaplain at the University of Basel and with whom he engaged in a kind of “dialectical relation,”[35] culminating in his publication of a book-length treatise on Barth’s theology in 1951. Barth, like de Lubac, “saw modern secularism as a result of a failure at the level of Christology”[36] and proposed a theology which took the person of Jesus Christ, rather than philosophical first principles or human subjectivity, as its starting point. Balthasar greatly appreciated Barth’s Christocentrism and the dynamic character of his theology, the awareness that “God acts in radical freedom, and is known in his acts … known better in narrated interaction than in abstraction.”[37] On the other hand, he sought to purify Barth’s theology of “a certain disvaluing of creation,”[38] which he detected especially in the latter’s dismissiveness of natural theology and the power of human reason to attain to knowledge of God. This fault arose from a false dualism in Barth’s conception of “the God-world relationship, and the interrelation of God and man in grace,”[39] which Balthasar could correct largely due to de Lubac’s influence: 

Barth responds to an immanentized and secularized account of natural human capacity for God by a fierce assertion of divine grace, failing to appreciate that any such natural capacity cannot be conceived apart from divine grace. Balthasar’s counter-suggestion is that Barth’s objection to a degraded natural theology is better met by reaffirming the unity of nature and grace.[40]

In this book, Balthasar also contributed to a resolution of the problem of nature and grace, still controversial today in Catholic theology, by proposing a reading of nature as a parable of grace: “The whole of creation and its order is undoubtedly the free gift of God,”[41] Balthasar argues, which is not “to be equated [with] the actual grace of God’s supernatural self-disclosure,”[42] but nonetheless is an appearing of the gratuity of love: “God could have ordered the world in many other different ways … That he chose this total arrangement that furnishes so much beneficence to the individual as well as to the whole can certainly be characterized as a ‘grace’.”[43]

Finally, no account of the major influences on Balthasar’s theology would be complete without mention of Adrienne von Speyr, the Swiss Protestant doctor who converted to Catholicism under Balthasar’s direction during these same years of his university chaplaincy. Speyr was a recipient of mystical “graces not seen since Teresa of Avila,”[44]according to Balthasar’s own reports, including the “yearly reliving of the descent of Christ into hell.”[45] Meeting von Speyr introduced a mystical element into Balthasar’s theology and a lived sense of the dynamism of God, “the strange, transformative, and all-demanding impact of God’s self-disclosure on the believer.”[46] It is no doubt due to her direct experience of the descent that Balthasar proposes that the Lord descended truly and fully into hell on Holy Saturday: 

Jesus was truly dead, because he really became a man as we are, a son of Adam, and therefore, despite what one can sometimes read in certain theological works, he did not use the so-called ‘brief’ time of his death for all manner of activities in the world beyond. In the same way that, upon earth, he was in solidarity with the living, so, in the tomb, he is in solidarity with the dead.[47]

For Balthasar, there was no part of man’s fallenness, even the experience of death, that the Lord did not experience and take up into himself. Most indicative of Speyr’s influence on Balthasar, however, is his own statement at the outset of one of his final works: “This book has one chief aim: to prevent any attempt being made after my death to separate my work from that of Adrienne von Speyr. It will show that in no respect is this possible.”[48]

The scope of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s contribution to the development of theology in the twentieth century is difficult to overstate. During the pontificate of John Paul II, von Balthasar was described by one journalist (perhaps somewhat polemically) as having moved from “an institutional misfit excluded from Vatican II, to the court theologian of today’s Vatican.”[49] The Polish pope certainly held the Swiss theologian in high esteem, elevating him to the cardinalate mere days before his death. There are clear theological affinities between Balthasar’s theology and John Paul II’s magisterium, including the conviction that “beauty … as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal”[50] and the understanding—following de Lubac’s theory of nature and grace and echoing the Christocentrism of Barth—that the saving mission of Christ brings “humanity to its fullness not only in terms of a future or separate eternal life but also as a hundredfold of fulfillment of our natural desire for God in this life.”[51] One might even trace a direct line of influence in one key aspect of John Paul II’s ecclesiology, first proposed by Balthasar in 1986, that “the Church lives both by a Petrine principle of apostolic ministry and by a Marian principle of life and fruitful receptivity. Of the two, the Marian principle is primary.”[52]

The influence of von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics can even be seen in the magisterium of Pope Francis, who claimed in his first encyclical that “every expression of true beauty can … be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus” and called for “a renewed esteem for beauty as a means of touching the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it.”[53] Of course, the mutual influence and lifelong friendship of Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger is well known; along with Henri de Lubac and other collaborators, the two friends co-founded the theological journal Communio in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The threads of influence between these two great theologians are too numerous and interwoven to enumerate briefly. It must suffice to quote the newly-elected Pope Benedict XVI’s remark, on the centenary of his friend’s birth, “that von Balthasar’s life was a genuine quest for the truth, which he understood as a search for true Life. He sought everywhere for traces of God’s presence and truth: in philosophy, in literature, in the religions, always managing to break those circuits that make reason a prisoner of itself and opening it to the spaces of the infinite.”[54]

In a post-modern world increasingly hardened against the Gospel by secularism and atheism, Balthasar provides a compelling witness of the continued possibility of engagement between theology and culture. Twenty-first century man, despite the indifference or outright hostility he might exhibit at times to Christianity, is still made for the vision of God. Priests today would do well to follow Balthasar’s example of “theology on one’s knees,”[55] drawing from the inexhaustible sources—above all in one’s individual life of prayer and meditation upon God’s self-revelation in Scripture and tradition—to address the real questions of post-modern culture with a fresh and vigorous proclamation of the Mystery of Christ. 


[1] Edward T. Oakes, SJ, “Balthasar and Ressourcement: An Ambiguous Relationship,” in Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology, ed. Gabriel Flynn and Paul D. Murray (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012), 288.

[2] David Moss and Edward T. Oakes, SJ, The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 7.

[3] Aidan Nichols, OP, Balthasar for Thomists (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020), 14.

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 3: Studies in Theological Style: Lay Styles (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), back cover.

[5] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 31.

[6] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 7.

[7] Balthasar, Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, 11.

[8] Balthasar, Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, 9.

[9] Rodney A. Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 2.

[10] Paul Silas Peterson, The Early Hans Urs von Balthasar: Historical Contexts and Intellectual Formation (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), 283.

[11] Howsare, Balthasar, 3.

[12] Moss and Oakes, Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, 2.

[13] Howsare, Balthasar, 2.

[14] Peter Henrici, “A Sketch of von Balthasar’s Life,” in Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work, ed. David L. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 14.

[15] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 28.

[16] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Fathers, the Scholastics and Ourselves,” Communio 24 (1997): 350.

[17] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 1: Seeing the Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982),18.

[18] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, 1:9.

[19] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, 1:11.

[20] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, 1:36.

[21] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 2:231, trans. Anthony Meredith, S.J. (London: Routledge, 1999), 106.

[22] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, 1:19.

[23] Adrian Walker, “Love Alone: Hans Urs von Balthasar as a Master of Theological Renewal,” Communio 32 (2005): 532, fn. 28.

[24] Hans Urs von Balthasar, My Work in Retrospect, trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 48.

[25] Fergus Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 71.

[26] Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, 11.

[27] Oakes, “Balthasar and Ressourcement,” 285.

[28] Henri de Lubac, SJ, “Supernatural and Superadded,” in Ressourcement Theology: A Sourcebook, ed. Patricia Kelly (London: T&T Clark, 2021), 58-59.

[29] De Lubac, “Supernatural,” 59.

[30] Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, 15.

[31] Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, 3.

[32] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Henri de Lubac: An Overview, trans. Joseph Fessio, SJ and Michael Waldstein (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 63.

[33] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation, trans. Edward T. Oakes, SJ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 297.

[34] Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 298.

[35] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 22.

[36] Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, 25.

[37] Ben Quash, “The theo-drama,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, ed. Edward T. Oakes, S.J. and David Moss(Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 145-146.

[38] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 21.

[39] Ibid. 

[40] John Webster, “Balthasar and Karl Bath,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, , ed. Edward T. Oakes, S.J. and David Moss (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 251.

[41] Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 277.

[42] Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 279.

[43] Domenico Palmieri, Tractatus de gratia divina actualis (Gulpen: M. Alberts, 1885), 7-8, qtd. in Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 278.

[44] Moss and Oakes, Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, 4.

[45] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 29.        

[46] Quash, “The theo-drama,” 146.

[47] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 148-149.

[48] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Our Task (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 13.

[49] Margaret Hebbelthwaite, “Balthasar’s Golden Touch,” The Tablet (20 September 1997), 1208.

[50] John Paul II, “Letter to Artists” (4 April 1999), §16.

[51] Leahy, “John Paul II and Hans Urs von Balthasar,” 36.

[52] Avery Dulles, The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II (New York: Crossroad, 1999)115. See Hans Urs von Balthasar, New Elucidations (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986). 

[53] Francis, Evangelii gaudium [The Joy of the Gospel] (24 November 2013), §167.

[54] Benedict XVI, “Message for the Centenary of the Birth of Fr Hans Urs von Balthasar” (6 October 2005).

[55] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology, vol. 1: The Word Made Flesh (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 206.

The Mass as Listening

“Listening is a vital aspect of the active participation of the faithful. One participates fully when one listens.”

Bishop Athanasius Schneider, “The Mass is Listening,” in The Catholic Mass, 139

A Homily

We live in an incredibly noisy age. I don’t know about you, but from the first moment of the day until I go to bed again, I feel constantly bombarded by emails, texts, phone calls and every other kind of alert. When we go to the store, there’s music. When we drive in our cars, there’s podcast or a radio program. And then there is the never-ending background hum of modern life – the traffic noise, the sirens, the advertisements, the chatter. 

Like fish in the ocean, we swim in a sea of noise. We grow accustomed to it. And little by little, over days and weeks and years, the bombardment of noise changes us. We find ourselves restless in rare moments of quiet. We are uncomfortable to be alone with ourselves.  

We have become addicts of distraction. And the worst is this: In our distraction, we have become deaf to the “still, small voice” of God. “When we come in from the outside our ears are filled with the racket of the city, the words of those who have accompanied us, the laboring and quarreling of our own thoughts, the disquiet of our hearts’ wishes and worries, hurts and joys. How are we possibly to hear what God is saying?” (Romano Guardini, qtd. in Schneider, The Catholic Mass, 139)

At every Holy Mass, Christ, the Word of the Father, speaks to us. And His Word is spirit and life (Jn 6:63), bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (6:33). Do you long for that life (cf. Ps 34:12)? Then first, learn to “be still, and know that I am God!” (Ps 46:10) “The liturgical life begins … with learning stillness” (Guardini, qtd. in Schneider, 140). Stillness is the natural state of a child at rest in the arms of his Father. Like a child, then, before we pray, we cast ourselves into the arms of God, whispering to Him all our anxieties and cares. 

When there is nothing left to say, we will be still and silent in the arms of God. Then we may begin to listen. We will “pay attention and make a real effort to understand what is being said” (139-40) in the readings, the prayers, the hymns and chants of the Mass, knowing that each word is spoken directly to us by the “One whom we know loves us” (St. Teresa).

Silence and stillness take practice. Today, at this Holy Mass, resolve to keep silence in the car on your next drive to church, and get here at least 10 minutes early to settle into the arms of the Father. As we learn to listen, we will taste that peace the world, with all its distractions, cannot give (cf. Jn 14:27), “and [that] peace, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6), both now and ever, unto the ages of ages. Amen. 

The Liturgy of the Hours as the Priestly Sacrifice of Praise

The offering of the Liturgy of the Hours is an essential part of the priestly vocation in the Roman Rite. Its place among the promises made by the ordinandi at the time of their ordination to the transitional diaconate reveals its foundational role in priestly identity and mission. After promising to embrace the celibate state “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, in the service of God and man,” the candidates are then asked: “Do you resolve to maintain and deepen the spirit of prayer that is proper to your way of life and, in keeping with this spirit … to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours with and for the People of God and indeed for the whole world?”[1] The structure of the promises indicates that the prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours is the principal means by which the candidates are intended to live out their celibate commitment to the Kingdom of God. Far from an accidental part of priestly life, the Liturgy of the Hours belongs to the very heart of the priesthood. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence suggests that many priests find this connection between liturgical prayer and priestly life a difficult one to make. As few as one-third of priests in the United States are said to pray the Liturgy of the Hours regularly, and those who do not most often cite a lack of time and the pressing obligations of pastoral ministry as the principal reasons.[2] Perhaps one reason for this widespread neglect is that priests simply do not know the foundational role which the Liturgy of the Hours is intended to play in their priestly life. To paraphrase Abbot Jerome Kodell, “We will not make time for prayer until we are convinced that there is no better use of our time than prayer.”

In this essay, then, we shall examine three reasons why the Liturgy of the Hours is priestly prayer par excellence. First, the Liturgy of the Hours is an extension of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout all the hours of the day. By praying the Liturgy of the Hours faithfully, the priest lives from the graces of Holy Mass throughout his many daily activities. Secondly, the Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of true sacrifice by which the priest’s life, his time, his very breath is offered back to God out of love and made holy. Thirdly, then, the priest who prays the Liturgy of the Hours offers a worthy sacrifice on behalf of his people, the Church, and the whole world, fulfilling the command of St. Paul: “Through him [Jesus Christ] let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Heb 13:15).  

In his Apostolic Constitution promulgating the revised Liturgy of the Hours in 1970, St. Paul VI referred to the Liturgy of the Hours as a “necessary complement” to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass “by which the fullness of divine worship contained in the eucharistic sacrifice would overflow to reach all the hours of daily life.”[3] Contained within these words is an exhortation to priests and lay faithful alike not to allow the Mass to be simply one hour out of the day, distinct and essentially unrelated from the rest. Rather, from the Mass, “the center and apex of the whole life of the Christian community,”[4]there is to flow a torrent of worship as from a mountain spring, which touches all the other hours of the day. This “fullness of divine worship” which springs from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is channeled through the day by the Liturgy of the Hours, which “extends to the different hours of the day the praise and thanksgiving, the commemoration of the mysteries of salvation, the petitions and the foretaste of heavenly glory, that are present in the eucharistic mystery.”[5] To use a different image, favored by the Rev. Dr. Pius Parsch, “the Mass may be compared to the sun in the Christian day, a sun around which the hours of the Church’s common prayer rotate like seven planets. The ‘hour-prayers’ are a preparation for Mass, they hark back to it, they seek to garner its fruit and graces through the day.”[6]In either case, the Liturgy of the Hours is the living link from the different periods of the day back to the Mass, the source of grace and divine life. This is of no small value for the parish priest with many pastoral duties! The Liturgy of the Hours is intended to be his companion, like “our own personal Angel Raphael who led the young Tobias successfully through all the dangers of his journey,”[7] or like the rock which followed the Israelites through the desert, from which “all drank the same supernatural drink” (1 Corinthians 10:4). 

Furthermore, the Liturgy of the Hours is sacrificial prayer, that is, prayer which makes something holy [sacrum facere] by offering it to God out of love. This is clear enough from the fact that incense may be offered at the solemn celebrations of Lauds and Vespers, a liturgical expression always connected with the offering of sacrifice. However, it may not be immediately obvious how the Liturgy of the Hours is a sacrifice. All sacrifice entails “some aspect of life being made over to the deity … either the blood of a victim is shed, or something that sustains life is offered: corn or wine.”[8] There is, furthermore, a mystical identification between the one offering the sacrifice and the oblation that is offered, since “the life principle surrendered is intended to be a substitute for the life of the offerer,”[9]given back to God symbolically in the destruction of the sacrifice. The Liturgy of the Hours, as the prayer of the whole Church, is called by Parsch “the breathing of the mystical body;”[10] the life principle offered to God in this sacrifice is the breath, which is “constantly consumed and used up in the service of God, winging its flight back to that mysterious Breathing which first set it in motion.”[11] We may add that a holocaust of time is offered to God by the priest who faithfully prays his breviary, using up precious minutes and hours in a sacrifice of praise and trusting that the Lord will take care of his to-do list. Here there is not only a mystical identification between the gift and the giver, as in the animal sacrifices of the old dispensation; there is a physical identification: it is my breath, my time which is burned up like incense around the altar in praise of God. In offering this daily sacrifice, the priest accomplishes the principal purpose of the Liturgy of the Hours, which “includes the sanctification of the day and of the whole range of human activity.”[12]

However, the priest does not offer the Liturgy of the Hours only for his own spiritual benefit. Unlike his own private or devotional prayer, indispensable as this is in the life of a priest, the Liturgy of the Hours is essentially public and liturgical. In fact, in the Liturgy of the Hours “the universal, objective, pastoral prayer [of the Church] is wedded with personal prayer,” such that “you can hear in the Breviary two distinct voices praying in unison: the Church and your own soul, now one, now the other.”[13] Even when he prays on his own, the priest prays the Liturgy of the Hours in union with and on behalf of the entire Church, “lending the Church his tongue to pay God a tribute of praise and thanks, and to pray for the graces and needs”[14] of the people of God. This prayer of the Church belongs to the essence of the priestly vocation; it is “the apex and source of pastoral activity.”[15] In the words of Parsch, “it is through the breviary that we participate in the official ministry and care of souls … We have become pastors in our own living room, from early morning until late at night.”[16]

At the heart of his vocation, the priest is one “chosen from among men … to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices” (Hebrews 5:1; cf. also 7:27, 10:11). We have seen that, far from an accidental obligation, the Liturgy of the Hours is an essential expression of this core principle of priesthood. It extends the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the source and summit of the Christian life, throughout all the hours and activities of the day, permeating a priest’s apostolic labor with the spirit of divine worship and the graces and fruits of the Mass. It is a sacrifice of praise in its own right, by which the priest offers his own life, his time, his breath to God; moreover, it is a sacrifice offered on behalf of the Church, by which the priest unites his own prayer to that of the people of God in his parish and throughout the world, interceding for their intentions and needs. 

Therefore, not overlooking the busy and often unfavorable conditions of modern ecclesiastical life, priests should take seriously their promise to offer this priestly prayer par excellence. The priest who prays the Liturgy of the Hours faithfully will experience not only the overflowing of the fullness of divine worship into all the areas of his apostolic labor, not only that sweetness of union with God which is the fruit of a sacrifice of love, but the faithfulness of the Lord who answers the prayers of his priests offered with and for His people: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). May the good Lord grant all His priests a renewal of the spirit of prayer and a resolution to offer this prayer of sacrifice more faithfully each day.


[1] “Rite of Ordination of Deacons,” no. 200, in The Roman Pontifical, 2nd typical edition (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: 2002). 

[2] Fr. Dennis McManus, lecture, “The Liturgy of the Hours in the Life of the Priest: How the Prayer of the Church and the Prayer of the Heart Come Together” (Menlo Park, CA: St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, March 1, 2021).

[3] Paul VI, Laudis Canticum [Apostolic Constitution Promulgating the Revised Book of the Liturgy of the Hours] (November 1, 1970), at

[4] Paul VI, Christus Dominus [Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops] (October 28, 1965), §30.

[5] General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, §12.

[6] Pius Parsch, The Breviary Explained, trans. William Nayden and Carl Hoegerl (London: B. Herder Book Co., 1952), 9.

[7] Parsch, The Breviary Explained, 8. 

[8] Vilma G. Little, The Sacrifice of Praise: An Introduction to the Meaning and Use of the Divine Office (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1957), 25.

[9] Little, The Sacrifice of Praise, 25.

[10] Parsch, The Breviary Explained, 5. 

[11] Little, The Sacrifice of Praise, 26.

[12] General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, §11.

[13] Parsch, The Breviary Explained, 8-9.

[14] Parsch, The Breviary Explained, 7.

[15] General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, §18.

[16] Pius Parsch, “Introduction,” The Hours of the Divine Office in English and Latin (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1963), 1-2.

The Divine Office

“When the body of the Son prays, it does not separate its head from itself: it is the one Savior of his body, our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, who prays for us and prays in us and is prayed to by us.”

St. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 85:1

To an Adult Faith Formation Class

The Book of Psalms is a true school of Christian prayer. In. it, we find language to express all the emotions of our hearts to God. If we are joyful, we may “cry to God with shouts of joy” (Ps 47:1); if we are sad: “Listen to my voice, O God, as I complain” (Ps 64:1); if we are afflicted, we may cry, “Relive the anguish of my heart, and set me free from my distress” (Ps 25:17); if we are penitent of heart: “Do not remember the sins of my youth. In your love remember me!” (Ps 25:7). 

Learning to pray with the Psalms not only supplies us with words to express the depths of our human emotions. It teaches us that the Lord really cares about those emotions. He wants us to “pour out our hearts before him” (Ps 62:8), not only those feelings that we deem “acceptable” or religious, but to “call upon him in truth” (Ps 145:18), expressing our deepest longings, anguish, hope—the whole gamut of human feeling. 

Indeed, the Lord Jesus cares intimately about the state of our hearts because He Himself assumed a human heart, with all its depth and range of feeling, in His Incarnation. As man, Jesus learned to pray the Psalms of David, endowing these inspired prayers with a supernatural significance surpassing their considerable poetic excellence. Jesus prayed the Psalms as no one else has. As God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, He prayed to the Father in the words of the Psalms, using human words to express the infinite, divine exchange of love which characterizes the inner life of the Trinity; as man, he poured out the depth of feeling of his human heart to God, and so our human feelings, too, are taken up into the mystery of divine love.

The way we Christians pray the Psalms is forever changed by this fact: Christ prayed them before us; He prays them now in us; we pray to Him in them. St. Augustine gives us a beautiful expression: in the Psalms, Christ “prays for us as our priest; he prays in us as our head; he is prayed to by us as our God. So we must recognize our voices in him and his voice in us.” 

In the Psalms, we recognize Christ praying to the Father, as when He said from the Cross: “Into your hands I commend my spirit!” (Ps 30:6) As we pray these verses, we lend Christ our voices with which to pray. As we pray in the words of Christ, He prays to the Father with our voices, and our hearts are drawn up into the pattern of His prayer: “we pray to him, through him, in him; we speak with him; he speaks with us” (St. Augustine).

The Mass as Prayer

“Private prayer and public prayer are … two sides of the same coin.”

Schneider, “The Mass is Prayer,” pg. 13

To a Catechism Class

Dear children, today we are going to learn about prayer. Prayer is a conversation we have with God. How can we speak to God? 

God is a great king. He is the king of kings, and “his kingdom is ruling over all!” (Ps 103:19). When we go to speak to a king, we don’t just use any words or come to him however we want. We carefully choose our words and gestures to show that we respect him very much. We wear our best clothes. We kneel down. We bow our heads. We do all this not because we are afraid of him, but because we love him and we recognize how great he is. We want to give him the very best we can. 

God does not expect us to come up with beautiful words and gestures all on our own in order to speak with him. In fact, he teaches us how to worship him in the Holy Mass, the most perfect prayer of all. In the Mass, we use the very words and gestures which God Himself revealed in order to worship him with all the dignity, attention and devotion he deserves.

But you know, God is not only our king. He is also our father, and he wants us to speak with him the way we would speak with our own fathers and mothers, who love us very much. Since we know our parents we love us, we can be honest with them, can’t we? We can come to them just as we are and tell them whatever is on our minds. 

When we pray on our own at home, in our rooms, and so on, we speak to God as his little children. Yes, I speak to him this way, too! We come to him just as simply and honestly as we would to our parents or our best friend. We pour out our hearts to him. And in the Mass, we do the same, just not out loud. We do it quietly in the secret room of our own hearts. 

Our private, familiar prayer to our father and the public, formal prayer we offer to our king come together in the Mass: “they are two sides of the same coin” (pg. 15). All the very solemn words and gestures of the Mass are not just for show. What we do with our bodies and say with our lips has to match the quiet, inner prayer of our hearts. There is a saying: “If the heart does not pray, the lips move in vain.” 

When we sing the Kyrie, we quietly confess the things we’ve done wrong and ask him to forgive us. When we sing the Sanctus, we gaze at his majesty and tell him how much we adore him. When the priest lifts up the bread and wine, we thank God for all his gifts and offer everything back to him. And so, little by little, at every Mass, Jesus teaches us how to pray “so that our mind is in harmony with our voices” (RB 19:7). The Mass becomes a school of prayer. 

Mystic of Unity: St. Ignatius of Antioch on the Incarnation and Imitation of Christ

Among the Apostolic Fathers, Ignatius, the God-bearing Bishop of Antioch, shines with a rare intensity. His very name, Ignatius, “the fiery one,” befits a teacher who not only imparts sound doctrine, but in whose letters “the ardent love of a saint can be felt”;[1] moreover, the name by which he styled himself in all his letters, Theophoros, “the God-bearer,” hints at a key theme of his perennial doctrine. Ignatius refers not only to himself, but to all Christians as “God-bearers.”[2] For Ignatius, this “God-bearing” is the real participation of each Christian in Christ, effected by the sacraments and mediated through the Church. It is their unity with the Church, principally with the bishop—above all, in the liturgical unity of common Eucharistic worship—which maintains the individual Christian’s participation in Christ, “for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop.”[3]The Church of our day, divided as she is along partisan lines, is sorely in need of appropriating once again the teaching of this first-century “mystic of unity.”

This paper will examine the doctrine of St. Ignatius under three aspects. First, we shall examine his teaching on the Incarnation of Christ and its consequences for his ecclesiology and Eucharistic theology, in contrast to the heretical doctrines of the Gnostics. Having established his contributions to the patristic witness on these central issues, we will then focus on Ignatius’s most distinctive themes, namely, the Christian’s participatory union with Christ and the kind of imitation of Christ required to preserve the bond of unity, with reference to the roots of these themes in the Pauline and Johannine “spiritual ‘currents’”[4] of the first-century Church. Finally, two pastoral implications of his doctrine for preaching the Mystery of Christ and the spiritual fatherhood and leadership of priests today will be suggested.

St. Ignatius on the Incarnation 

Saint Ignatius was a true son of the Church of Antioch, the theological approach of which was known for its “pronounced Christological “realism” … more focused than ever on the Incarnation of the Son of God and on his true and concrete humanity.”[5] Behind this increased focus, no doubt, was the looming threat of Docetism, a pernicious aspect of the Gnostic heresy which denied that Christ assumed a truly human nature; rather, he only seemed [δοκειν] to be human. If the Lord did not have a true body, as the Gnostics taught, then the sufferings of his Passion were only an illusion. Ignatius writes against these heretics in numerous letters; his admonition to the Trallians is typical: “If, as some atheists (that is, unbelievers) say, he suffered in appearance only … I die for no reason; what is more, I am telling lies about the Lord. Flee, therefore, from these wicked offshoots that bear deadly fruit.”[6] Against the false teaching of the Gnostics, he carefully taught the true doctrine of the Incarnate Lord, “who was of the family of David, who was the son of Mary; who really was born, who both ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really was crucified and died … who, moreover, really was raised from the dead.”[7] However, this Christological realism in no way undermines Ignatius’s insistence on the divinity of Christ. In language echoing the Christology of St. John’s Gospel, he teaches that Christ is the “Word that came forth from silence,”[8] “the Eternal, the Invisible, who for our sake became visible; the Intangible, the Unsuffering, who for our sake suffered.”[9] He does not hesitate to refer to him as “Jesus Christ our God.”[10] Christ is, in short, “both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man.[11]

In fact, all of Ignatius’s chief concerns are centered upon upholding the orthodoxy of the theandric Christ against the threat of Gnosticism to remove corporeality from the Christian faith. Thus, transposing the terms of the debate from Christology to ecclesiology, Ignatius insists in almost every letter upon the necessity of maintaining unity with the hierarchical leadership of the Church: “Be united with the bishop and with those who lead … As the Lord did nothing without the Father, either by himself or through the apostles (for he was united with him), so you must not do anything without the bishop and the presbyters.”[12] His letters attest unequivocally to the institution of a monarchical episcopate in the churches of the near East by the end of the first century. With the passing of the last of the apostles, the authority of those bishops whom they had appointed as their successors became essential to maintaining the apostolic tradition in its integrity. Against the Gnostics, then, who deemphasized this physical, visible element of the Church and especially the authority of the bishops in favor of the secret knowledge [γνῶσις] passed down by spiritual elites, Ignatius is absolutely clear: “Whoever does anything without the bishop and council of presbyters and deacons does not have a clear conscience”[13] and, indeed, “serves the devil.”[14] Within the tripartite hierarchy of the Church, the bishop always has the presiding and decisive role: “You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father,”[15] he teaches, for “it is right … to give him all the respect due him in accordance with the power of God the Father, just as I know that the holy presbyters … defer to him as one who is wise in God; yet not really to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of all.”[16]

This obedience to the bishop, the visible manifestation of one’s union with Christ and the Church, is expressed most essentially for St. Ignatius in partaking of one common Eucharistic worship. Once again, Ignatius is concerned to protect the corporeality of the Eucharist, the visible, tangible sign and cause of the Church’s communion, against “those who hold heretical opinions … They abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ.”[17] Therefore, immediately after exhorting them to remain in union with their bishop, Ignatius instructs the Philadelphians to “take care … to participate in one Eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the council of presbyters and the deacons.”[18] Significantly, unity with the Church is the guarantee of the sacrament’s efficacy in uniting the believer with Christ, since “only the Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid.”[19] One cannot be united with Christ on a purely private, individual basis, as the Gnostics claimed. For Ignatius, the bond of union with Christ is maintained only in unity with the Church, manifested in its public liturgical worship.

Indwelling, Union, and Imitation

In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “no Church Father has expressed the longing for union with Christ and for lifein him with the intensity of Ignatius. In fact, two spiritual ‘currents’ converge in Ignatius, that of Paul, straining with all his might for union with Christ, and that of John, concentrated on life in him.”[20] We have remarked already on the significance of Ignatius’s chosen nom de plume, Theophoros, and his doctrine that Christ “dwells in us,” that Christians are “his temples” and Christ is “in us as our God.”[21] This is no innovation, but a strong affirmation of the teaching of St. Paul, who asked, “Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor 13:5) and who dared to proclaim, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).[22] For Ignatius, as for Paul, Christ is alive and present in the human soul. “But Christ is not only in us,” as J. Quasten notes: “We are also one with Christ, hence all Christians are linked by a divine union.”[23] Here the Johannine influence comes to the fore. St. John, who alone among the evangelists records the Lord’s appeal to “abide in me, and I in you” (Jn 15:4), instructs the Church in his first epistle: “By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 Jn 2:5-6), since “all who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them” (3:24).  For Ignatius, as for John, remaining in and maintaining this union is the most essential duty of the Christian life. Therefore, “let us be found in Christ Jesus,”[24] “blameless in him,”[25] he continually exhorts the churches: “I pray that in them there may be a union of flesh and spirit … of faith and love … of Jesus and the Father.”[26]

These spiritual currents converge in St. Ignatius and produce his most distinctive development in the tradition: the imitation of Christ as the means of maintaining and deepening the bond of unity. “Let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord,” he exhorts the Ephesians, “that with complete purity and self-control you may abide in Christ Jesus physically and spiritually.”[27] This imitation is not a purely moral matter; it is a configuration of one’s whole life to Jesus, not only spiritual but physical, accomplished above all through obedience to the bishop and Eucharistic communion: “Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ in the flesh was to the Father, and as the apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there may be unity, both physical and spiritual.”[28] The Christian who imitates Christ’s obedience to the Father through obedience to his bishop and who partakes of the flesh of Christ, “the medicine of immortality,”[29] will be christified and “live forever in Jesus Christ.”[30] We cannot fail to mention here the ultimate imitation of Christ, that of martyrdom, which St. Ignatius joyfully accepted in order “to be an imitator of the suffering of my God.”[31] Although N. Russell considers that “even those who are inclined to maximize Ignatius’ mystical side do not consider him a proponent of deification,”[32] and certainly the Platonic categories of θέωσις found in later authors such as Clement of Alexandria are not to be found in the Bishop of Antioch, it is also true that “it will not be long before the Christian who is christified will be said to be deified.”[33] In Ignatius, although we do not have a fully developed doctrine of deification, universus est in semine.


 Space permits only two brief observations on the implications of Ignatius’ doctrine for the Church today. First, priests must take care to preach the Mystery of Christ in his true and concrete humanity; there can be no imitation of Christ if he is not “a man like us in all things but sin.”[34] Secondly, all the faithful, but particularly the priests, ought to imitate Christ in maintaining unity with the diocesan bishop. In this, the priest should be the first to lead the way, such that he can credibly say to his people the words of St. Paul: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). The Church today must heed the counsels of the God-bearing Bishop of Antioch: “God does not dwell where there is division and anger. The Lord, however, forgives all who repent, if in repenting they return to the unity of God and the council of the bishop.”[35]


[1] Benedict XVI, “Saint Ignatius of Antioch” [General Audience] (14 March 2007).

[2] Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Ephesians,” 9, 1, trans. Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 190.

[3] Ignatius, “Letter to the Philadelphians,” 4, 1.

[4] Benedict XVI, “Ignatius of Antioch.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ignatius, “Letter to the Trallians,” 10-11, 1.

[7] “Trallians,” 9, 1.

[8] Ignatius, “Letter to the Magnesians,” 8, 2.

[9] Ignatius, “Letter to Polycarp,” 3, 2.

[10] Ignatius, “Letter to the Romans,” prologue.

[11] “Ephesians,” 7, 2. Emphasis added.

[12] “Magnesians,” 6, 2; 7, 1.

[13] “Trallians,” 7, 2. 

[14] Ignatius, “Letter to the Smyrnaeans,” 9, 1.

[15] “Smyrnaeans,” 8, 1.

[16] “Magnesians,” 3, 1.

[17] “Smyrnaeans” 6, 2.

[18] “Philadelphians,” 4, 1. 

[19] “Smyrnaeans,” 8, 1.

[20] Benedict XVI, “Ignatius of Antioch.”

[21] “Ephesians,” 15, 3.

[22] The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010).

[23] Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. 1 (Utrecht: Spectrum Publishers, 1950), 72.

[24] “Ephesians,” 11, 1.

[25] “Trallians,” 13, 3.

[26] “Magnesians,” 1, 2.

[27] “Ephesians,” 10, 3.

[28] “Magnesians,” 13, 2.

[29] “Ephesians,” 20, 2.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Romans,” 6, 3.

[32] Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 92.

[33] Russell, Deification, 12.

[34] Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer IV.

[35] “Philadelphians,” 8, 1.