Reason, wonder and Pope Benedict XVI

April 16, 2008 | 34 comments

Yesterday afternoon I found myself sitting on the edge of a foot stool in my living room, transfixed as the television showed the faint lights of a plane coming in across the Atlantic from Rome.

I didn’t intend to watch much of Pope Benedict’s arrival to the United States: it was during my kids’ naptime — my one chance for free time in the whole day — and I had many other things I needed and wanted to be doing. And yet, there I sat. For about an hour. I’d never thought about it in detail before, but when I felt a sting of tears in my eyes as the jet safely touched ground, I realized just what an impact Pope Benedict XVI has had on my life and my conversion. To understand why, a bit of background is needed:

The beginning of my religious conversion was a lonely time for me.

I’d spent my whole life as an outsider to Christian circles, and it was hard to imagine that I could ever be comfortable being “one of them, ” the people whom I had firmly categorized in my mind as “other.” I’d come to believe in God on an intellectual level, yet I felt stuck, unable to move forward from there. I’d known many Christians in my life, of course, but had never shared that part of their lives with them. It made me feel out of my element to even contemplate doing so.

I had this lingering impression that Christians and Christian culture were different from anything I knew. In my house growing up, the climate was one of a love of learning and reason, of wonder at the universe based on science and facts. As early as elementary school my dad would read books like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos to me at night; when Halley’s Comet was visible we drove ten hours to get to the best place to view it, and stood in the cold for hours, just gazing in awe at the sky; we’d visit our astronomer friend and look with great interest at the latest meteorites he’d collected, animatedly discussing the mysteries of the universe over dinner. There was a strong, distinct culture of wonder based firmly on the foundation of reason. On the rare occasions that the topic of religion came up, it was only to note that it was a shame that people let superstitious dogmas hold them back from the fearless pursuit of truth.

Ironically, it was this very idea of fearlessly pursuing truth that led me to Christianity. As I’ve said before, I didn’t have a “personal encounter” with Jesus or a thunder-and-lightning conversion experience. I just did some research and thought it was true. And yet, that left me in a strange position. I had no idea how one gets to “know” God — how can you know someone you can’t see? I didn’t understand what it meant to “have faith” — did that mean setting all reason aside and believing all sorts of dogmas without question?

Many of the great Christian authors helped me gain an understanding of these concepts, yet one stood out from the rest. There was one author whose writing had a very familiar ring to it, whose way of thinking reminded me of the people I knew growing up, who built a bridge to unite in my mind the intellectual culture of atheism and the intellectual culture of Christianity:

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, whom we now know as Pope Benedict XVI.

Once I made the decision to become Catholic I figured I might as well find out more about our current Pope. I was aware that he was an academic who’d published many books, so I started to learn more about his writing. It didn’t take much reading to feel an instant connection to this Pope. An example from a speech he gave in 2005:

From the beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the Logos, as the religion according to reason…Today, this should be precisely [Christianity’s] philosophical strength, in so far as the problem is whether the world comes from the irrational, and reason is not other than a ‘sub-product, ‘ on occasion even harmful of its development — or whether the world comes from reason, and is, as a consequence, its criterion and goal…In the so necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: to live a faith that comes from the Logos, from creative reason, and that, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational. [Thanks to Wikipedia for the excerpt]

Though I’d read work by other Christians who laid out logical, reasonable cases for their beliefs, there was something about Pope Benedict’s particular style that reminded me of the people I knew growing up. Many times I thought that if my father and his scientist friends were to become believers and write books about why they believed, this is what it would look like. When I read his encyclicals, excerpt from speeches and books like Journey to Easter and Jesus of Nazareth, I didn’t feel so lost in the Christian world anymore. I learned what it means to have faith, and that faith and reason go hand in hand. I learned that the zeal for knowledge and truth that I’d seen in my nonreligious upbringing could not only be found in Christianity, but was in fact one of its defining characteristics.

My new home started to feel as comfortable as my old home.

I’ve often quipped to my husband that Pope Benedict would make a good atheist. Not just because of his emphasis logic and reason and insistence on looking at the evidence that supports his faith, since that is a hallmark of many great Christian thinkers, but because of a certain je ne sais quoi that I recognize from the world of intellectual atheism. I see in him a particular combination of wonder based on reason, an ability to convey his passion for his beliefs without even appealing to emotion, and a completely fearless pursuit of truth that I’ve always seen in many of my atheist friends and family members whom I admire.

As I sat in my living room yesterday, watching the light of Shepherd One slowly grow brighter as it neared the American airport, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for our Pope. I’ve heard the term “JPII Catholics” used to describe the generation of people who were inspired by the great Pope John Paul II. I think I’m a “BXVI Catholic.” This Pope has spoken to me in a way I never thought a lifelong believer could, and has inspired in me an excitement about my faith that I never thought possible. When I saw him step off the plane, it was with deep emotion that I welcomed to my earthly home the man who helped welcome me to my spiritual home.

RELATED POSTS: Some other posts about Pope Benedict’s writing are: The desert experience; Having it all in prayer; A reckless experiment with prayer.


  1. Barb

    I was watching the coverage this morning, seeing those familiar sites of Washington DC, and wishing I could be there!
    I was thinking back three years ago (this coming Saturday) when he was elected to the papacy, and remembering the joy I felt that day..evidence to me of how our dear Lord always has His hand upon His Church.
    I started reading your site last year after seeing a link (I think it was by Mrs Darwin)on your scorpion saga. I remember reading those posts out loud to my husband and being eternally grateful that we don’t have scorpions in Cincinnati!
    I did read many of your old posts on your conversion then, but think I may go back and read some of them again to refresh my mind.
    A blessed day to you…

  2. Thomas

    I so just wrote a post in which I said that I am a “BXVI Catholic” myself!

  3. Anonymous

    And he wore his red Prada shoes! He’s such a cute little Pope. How can anyone not love him?

  4. Kyrie

    I’m a convert myself from a strong Lutheran background and I am DEFINITELY a BXVI Catholic. His writing, esp “God is Near Us” on the Eucharist, really opened my eyes the beauty of the intellectual and experiential faith in the Roman Catholic Church. Seeing the combination in his many works of the deep intellectual truth combined with the real power of that truth LIVED out, was a major steping stone to my conversion.
    definitely a BXVI Catholic.

  5. Damien

    Thank you for your blog. Even though I am a cradle Catholic, your faith journey has much in common with my deepening faith.
    Pope Benedict talks about Truth and Reason. I study, think things out, and try to march towards the truth. Hopefully all of that leads me to the type of beautiful faith that you live.

  6. Genevieve

    Beautiful, Jen. If I may take your thoughts a step further and add to them my own, I would find myself giddy when a particular truth was expressed in a new way. There are the “transitive moments” in that: if AB is true, and BC is true, then the relationship between A and C must be X. I would put down the book and fight the tears. I’ve always felt emotionally crippled in some ways, but these truths could evoke more honest emotion than I would ever be able to explain. It had to do with consistency and reason, which have their own thrill. Thanks for sharing this (and I hope I didn’t take your thought “off the reservation”).

  7. Kelly @ Love Well

    I love this line: “An ability to convey his passion for his beliefs without even appealing to emotion.”

    That’s a gift, isn’t it?

  8. Rocks In My Dryer

    That’s a beautiful tribute. You should write to him and tell him those things. I mean, I’m sure he gets a hefty bit of mails since he’s, you know, the POPE, but I suspect some letters like that are bound to reach him.

  9. Jason

    Ok, this pope has got my full attention now. I’m going to have to read some of his stuff.

  10. Abigail

    Here, here. Such a gentle, yet decisive, shepard for our humble world-wide flock. Thank you for this beautiful tribute!

  11. Karen E.

    Beautiful post, Jen. He is indeed a huge gift to us all.

  12. Mary Margaret

    I’m a revert. I was born during Blessed John XXIII’s reign, came of age during PPVI’s, back to the church during the age of John Paul II, but I am a PBXVI Catholic. I think that JPII was a wonderful man and I still miss him, but the personality overwhelmed me.

    Pope Benedict XVI is more quiet, more reflective, and his words speak to my soul, where JPII spoke more to my emotions. When I think of one following the other, it makes me want to drop to my knees and thank a merciful God for giving us these tremendous successors to St Peter, when we obviously have done nothing to deserve them. Thank you, Lord!

    Oh, Jason, definitely read Pope Benedict’s writings. His is a rare gift–a mind of such brilliance, steeped in theology, who can communicate to all of us very simply, and with great clarity the true joy of Christianity. His writings shine with truth, reason, love and quiet joy. God grant him many years!

  13. Jackie B

    All I can say is, YES, YES, YES!!!

  14. Aaron Magnan

    I converted to Catholicism in between the two popes, but I am definitely more of a BVI Catholic as well.

    I think one of the most appealing things about him is that he does not fit into political categories very easily. He’s just Catholic.

    God bless

  15. Anonymous

    I keep struggling with social justice and the concept of Jesus as a great teacher,leader, martyr for the greater good… vs, my inability to make the “leap of faith” to “GOD”. I keep reading, periodically, Merton, Bonhoeffer, et al but there is still a … separation.
    I started an RCIA class in the Fall, but couldn’t find a parking place ( yes, I know that is lame, but it was true!).
    So, I am still hoping to get connected in this somehow.
    I keep reading and studying.

  16. nicole

    Great post Jen! You do a great job of showing how a person can be connected to the Pope without knowing him. I’m probably one of those JPII Catholics, and I find that Pope Benedict is a continuation of that spirituality and connectedness. While JPII tended to connect to people on an emotional level in some way, Benedict gives reason to those same feelings. What a gift we have been given!

  17. Jon

    Papa Ratzi’s emphasis on the rationality and positiveness of the faith are the two points that make him an excellent Pope. Mind you I’m an Anglican and an Episcopalian so there are plenty of points on which I think he’s mistaken, but he’s a lot better than some, even in the Catholic Church, who talk as if God had given them a book of arbitrary rules to enforce on everyone else.


  18. Margaret

    Regarding your inability to make the “leap of faith” to GOD… I definitely get that. I grew up in the Protestant church, left it in college, and returned about a year and 1/2 ago, after almost 20 years of virtual atheism. I’m still a protestant, though the more I read about Catholicism, the more I consider converting… Anyway, my reason for writing (besides telling Jen that I ADORE her blog!), is to offer some help. The book that finally helped me “make the leap” was “Mere Christianity,” by C.S. Lewis. Here’s a rather famous passage from MC, explaining why Christ couldn’t possibly have been JUST a great teacher, leader, etc… When I read it, it just… made sense. And then everything else in the world started to make sense. I’ll pray that the same thing happens for you. Keep searching. He IS there, and He’s drawing close to you…

    From Mere Christianity:

    “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”

  19. SuburbanCorrespondent

    What would you say is the most accessible piece of the Pope’s writings? Which book? I’m always overwhelmed by the difficulty of reading his writing.

  20. Jon

    i admire Lewis a great deal, but that argument in favor of the divinity of CHrist might have a hard time standing up in the face of biblical criticism, since it depends on Jesus actually saying what the gospels say he said. Mind you I do believe in Jesus’ divinity, but that is at least as much becuase of thinking about what is neccesary for the work of salvation to make sense.


  21. Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin

    he’s a lot better than some, even in the Catholic Church, who talk as if God had given them a book of arbitrary rules to enforce on everyone else.” — Jon

    Such people are a trial and a cross. The point of moral doctrine is to teach others, but you only enforce it upon yourself.

  22. Aimee

    Seems like you and I both were really resonating with the Pope, Jennifer! It is an incredible feeling when the reality of it all comes home.

    Your post inspired me to write another post of my own; I linked it to your post here. Thank you – and God bless!

  23. Jon

    Amen, Arkanabar, as long as we don’t forget the role of reason in formulating those moral doctrines.


    • Maria

      Hebrew 11:1,3: To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see. It is by faith that we understand that the universe was created by God’s word, so that what can be seen was made out of what cannot be seen.

      How about inspired teachings? The bible, we accept it as inspired writings.

      West teachings are of reason (faith and reason are compatible per St Thomas Aquinas) and East teachings say there is the heart and soul. Accdg to Pope JPII, the church has two lungs … meaning west and east.

      I am not a theologian. I just love being Catholic.

  24. Dan

    I’ve read about a dozen Pope Benedict/Cardinal Ratzinger books (many are actually collections of essays or speeches) and so I feel that I know him very well. He is, I agree, very good at explaining why Christianity and reason complement each other. But that is just a tiny part of his greatness. He is a unique combination of holiness and erudition, kindness and brilliance. He is devoted not only to truth but also to the love that the Truth teaches and inspires.

  25. Anonymous

    This is for Anonymous,
    I think you’re working too hard. Prayer works, especially if you enlist the communion of saints on your behalf. If you approach God as your father; asking Him to please give you faith, He will. I know because He did it for me.

  26. Mary Margaret

    suburbancorrespondent: I think that the most accessible are actually the ones he didn’t write. My recommendation is to start with the “interview” books. Begin with Salt of the Earth, I think. It’s pretty short, but you get a very good idea of who this man is, his theological ideas, and his incredible kindness and humility (My daughter of 16 or so and I read this one together, and she was amazed at how gently he answered questions which were not very gently phrased.) Because he is just answering questions from a former (now revert, Thank God) Catholic in a relatively informal manner, the book is very easy to read. I believe that God and the World is the second of these interviews, both with Peter Seewald. Also, his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is relatively easy to read–and short!

    I am still exploring his writing myself, and the Good Lord knows, I am no theologian, I hold no degrees in philosophy, religion, or theology. I find most of his writing fairly accessible, but I know that I get out of my depth when he really gets professorial. Best of luck! He really is a treasure. I suspect that people will still be reading his works long after I’m gone (as well they should)!

  27. Aimee

    For some reason the link to my blog didn’t show up on my earlier comment, where I wrote a reflection inspired by your reflection here, Jennifer, so I’m putting it here. Thanks again, and keep up the great work! I’m hoping to ease back into regular blogging soon, now that my grad school studies are finally drawing to a close. I’ve missed it!

  28. Philippa

    Do you know what the title of the speech from 2005 that you quoted was (sorry if I’m missing something obvious)?
    I’d like to read it 🙂
    Thanks very much!

  29. Anonymous

    Every Pope since Paul VI has promoted traditional NFP behavior in marriage. Yet these teachings are avoided in many dioceses, while Catholic OB/Gyns prescribe contraeptives. The holocaust of abortions, AIDS, STDs and also the plague of divorces evidence this failure of local teaching from Humanae Vitae (40th year this month).

    • Maria

      It is avoided because it is controversial. It takes courage to teach it. For me it is simple as this … we are created in the likeness and image of God (Gen1:26) and we are His temple (1 Cor3:16-17). If we see it like this then … sex is made holy in the sacrament of marriage and should be within the scope of responsibility, thus love has to be treasured and nurtured … no sex outside it means no STD’s, no STI’s, no abortions.

  30. Maria

    Nice to see all the comments here. I am not a convert. I am just a catholic and my current prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is conversion of non-believers. This is a gift to me to see all of your comments. To all, go to and read all the encyclicals of our popes. Chilling that the old teachings are still very much of today’s issues. By the way, Pope JPII died on Holy Saturday and Pope BXVI was born on a Holy Saturday.

  31. Adrian G

    This is just superb. Since I lost my parents 2 years ago, Benedict has been like a spiritual father to me and I feel so comforted by his reason, his joy, and his serenity in turbulent times. I just love his writings and I’m so glad you have paid tribute to him here. God bless him and thank you for writing this.


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