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Pope Benedict XVI Praises Hans Urs von Balthasar

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Lords Cardinals, venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood, distinguished ladies and gentlemen:

It is with great pleasure that I join you spiritually in celebrating the centenary of the birth of Hans Urs von Balthasar. I had the joy of knowing and associating with this renowned Swiss theologian. I am convinced that his theological reflections preserve their freshness and profound relevance undiminished to this day and that they incite many others to penetrate ever further into the depths of the mystery of the faith, with such an authoritative guide leading them by the hand. On an occasion like this I could easily be tempted to dwell on personal memories, based on the sincere friendship between us and on the numerous projects that we undertook together, in response to the many challenges of those years. The founding of the review Communio, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, remains the most evident sign of our common commitment to theological research. Yet it is not memories that I intend to speak about, but rather the richness of von Balthasar’s theology.

He had made the mystery of the Incarnation the preferential object of his studies, and he saw in the Mysterium Paschale–as one of his works in significantly entitled–the most expressive form of this descent of God into human history. Indeed, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the mystery of God’s Trinitarian love is revealed in its fullness. The reality of the faith finds here its unsurpassable beauty. In the drama of the Paschal Mystery, God fully lives out his act of becoming man, but at the same time he makes man’s action meaningful and gives concrete form to the engagement of the Christian in the world. Von Balthasar saw in this the logic of revelation. God becomes man so that man might experience communion of life with God. In Christ is offered the ultimate truth, the definitive answer to the question that everyone asks himself about the meaning of life. Theological aesthetics, dramatics and logic make up the trilogy in which these concepts find ample room [for development] and principled application. I can testify that his life was a genuine search for truth, which he understood as a search for the true Life. He looked everywhere for signs of the presence of God and of his truth: in philosophy, in literature, in religions, always managing to break through the circuitous reasoning that often holds the mind a prisoner of itself, and opening it up to the horizons of the infinite.

Hans Urs von Balthasar was a theologian who placed his research at the service of the Church, because he was convinced that theology could be defined only in terms of ecclesiality. Theology, as he conceived of it, must be joined with spirituality; indeed, only in this way could it be profound and effective. Reflecting on precisely this aspect, he wrote: "Or did scientific theology only begin with Peter Lombard? Yet none dealt more adequately with matters of theology than Cyril of Jerusalem, Origen in his homilies, Gregory of Nazianzen and the Areopagite, the master whose works are so full of the spirit of awe and wonder. Who would be so bold as to say of any of the Fathers that his works are ‘full of unction’ in the modern sense? In those days, men were clear as to how theology should be written: it should reflect both the unity of faith and knowledge and an attitude of objectivity allied with one of reverence and awe. Theology was, when pursued by men of sanctity, a theology at prayer: which is why its fruitfulness for prayer, its power to foster prayer, is so undeniable" (The Word Made Flesh: Explorations in Theology vol. I, Ignatius Press 1989, pp. 207-208). These are words that prompt us to reconsider the true position of research in theology. The demand for scientific method is not sacrificed when theological research is carried on in a religious spirit of listening to the Word of God, when it is alive with the life of the Church and shares in the strength of her Magisterium. Spirituality does not attenuate the work of scholarship, but rather supplies theological study with the correct method so that it can arrive at a coherent interpretation.

This concept of theology led von Balthasar to a profound existential reading. Accordingly, one of the central themes that he liked to dwell on was demonstrating the necessity of conversion. The change of heart was a central point for him; indeed, only in this way does the mind free itself from the limits that prevent it from drawing near to the mystery, enabling the eyes to fix their gaze upon the face of Christ. In a word, he had grasped profoundly the fact that theology can develop only with prayer that recollects the presence of God and relies upon him in obedience. This is a road that is worth traveling to the very end. It allows us to avoid one-sided approaches that can only lead away from the goal, and it safeguards against following fashionable trends that fragment our interest in what is essential. The example that von Balthasar has given us is, rather, that of a true theologian who in contemplation had discovered a consistent course of action for giving Christian witness in the world. We remember him on this important occasion as a man of faith, a priest who, in obedience and in a hidden life, never sought personal approval, but rather in the true Ignatian spirit always desired the greater glory of God.

With these sentiments, I encourage all of you to continue, with interest and enthusiasm, your study of the writings of von Balthasar and to find ways of applying them practically and effectively. I implore the Lord to send abundant gifts of understanding upon you and upon the work of the Convention, and as a token of the same I impart to all of you a special Blessing.

Vatican City, October 6, 2005


Related links:

Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI author page
Hans Urs von Balthasar author page

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