Reason, wonder and Pope Benedict XVI

February 9, 2010 | 18 comments

I’m on a roll working on the book, so here’s one from the archives. It was originally published on April 16, 2008, during Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States.

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.



  1. TRS

    you are so beautiful!

    Such a beautiful writer and your faith is … just beautiful.

    Thank you for sharing your 'discoveries' with us Cradle Catholics. You inspire me all over again.

  2. Michelle

    as I read this post, I am struck with a question. have you have written about your parents' feelings on your conversion? I'd love to read it if you did. Since I grew up at least attending Mass (even though my parents weren't the greatest example of the faith), I just don't even know what it would be like to be in your situation…grown up in a non-religious household. And I wonder how your parents received your conversion…

  3. Miłość

    That's a really wonderful post. I was one of thoes "JPII Catholics" you talked about, but I'm being to like our current Pope more and more. What a great guy 🙂

  4. Dawn Farias

    Thank you for this post. Your upbringing sounds fascinating.

  5. Christopher Milton

    Oh! Oh! I'm a BXVI Catholic, too! I love JPII, but BXVI is totally my Pope-crush. There is just something about the way he tears things a part with such precision. Yeah, just amazing. A-Maze-ing.

    I totally love our German Shepherd!

  6. Anonymous

    The only word I can find to describe PBXVI's writings is "brilliant." Every time I finish reading something by him, that's the only word that seems to accurately describe what I've just finished. And not necessarily in the sense of "smart," though that is certainly true, but more in the sense of "clear" and "precise."

  7. Melanie B

    Obviously I have a soft spot for Pope Benedict. I named my first son Benedict.

    What you say about the fearless pursuit of truth reminds me of one of my favorite sayings from one of my favorite saints, St Teresa Benedict who was born Jewish, became atheist and then became Catholic, a Carmelite nun and finally a martyr. She said that he who seeks truth, seeks God. I've always felt she meant exactly that kind of fearless pursuit of the truth no matter where it might lead.

  8. Anonymous

    Isn't German the language of science? I think Pope Benedict's precision and clarity are the hallmarks of his writing. He writes in almost a scientific manner-I think that's why he appeals to your analytical mind. I like him for many reasons, but mostly because he seems kind of shy in the spotlight.

  9. Pete Hoge

    As a person who worships in
    the Reformation tradition I
    admit admiration for the Pope.
    He is not an intellectual light-
    weight and has the element
    of Faith to make him credible
    to me.


  10. Kristen Laurence

    He appeals much more to the intellect than to emotion, which makes him so fascinating to read, imo! Anon is right, his writing is clear and precise. I'd say he's more of an Aristotelian than a Platonist. I love our Shephard too! I'm so happy you're one of his flock, Jen!

  11. Kathleen@so much to say, so little time

    "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…"

    Classic German. 🙂

    (Says the 100% German girl.)

  12. Natasa

    I'm a massive fan of BXVI too. His books are amazing and his faith so profound and discussed in such an intelligent way.

    Someone mentioned a Pope-crush LOL I have his picture on the fridge, I guess I'm guilty too ;-))

  13. A. L. Jagoe

    As a convert of many years,I agree that "show, don't tell" is the best means of inviting outsiders to the Feast.
    Armiger Jagoe, editor of The Joyful Catholic

  14. Dave Mueller

    Totally agree…Pope Benedict XVI is one of the greatest Popes in history IMO.

    Pope Benedict XVI will be the first to receive the title "Stupendous" because "Great" just isn't good enough! 🙂

    Seriously, it is so important to know the rational reasons for our Faith. Faith as a concept is so misunderstood. It isn't "belief without a reason"; it's "belief without PROOF."

    Pope Benedict XVI is like "Fides Et Ratio" embodied.

  15. Karina

    So glad to see that the book is going well. I'm a fan of BXVI too, although sometimes his books are just over my head. But they are very informative, and I learn so much from them.

  16. Anonymous

    Brought me to tears. I'm soo glad you were able to make the journey. lol to a German Shepherd. He truely is a great Pope. It would behoove others to read his books! They offer many a wonderful insight.

  17. Wsquared

    I know that this is kind of late for this particular post, but I’ve spent a rather pleasant afternoon reading your thoughts, having encountered your blog for the first time today.

    I am a Catholic revert who has had many of the same thoughts and questions that you’ve had about the Catholic faith, so your writing struck a very real chord with me. I certainly grinned from ear to ear upon discovering that “Catholicism for Dummies” was on your reading list. If I may suggest a website that you might enjoy, if you haven’t come across it already, it’s Fr. Robert Barron’s Word On Fire website ( He’s currently working on a documentary series called The Catholicism Project, slated for release later this year.

    And yay, glad to see that you’re another B16 Catholic! I do love JPII, and I remember that my mom would always refer to him as “her” pope. After having read Benedict XVI’s interviews with Peter Seewald, “Salt of the Earth” and “Light of the World,” I am now making my way through “The Spirit of the Liturgy.” I love reading what this Pope has to say: it’s not just that he’s super smart, erudite, and is “fides et ratio” personified, but what he writes is very approachable, because he’s also very humble. He knows full well that God works with “inadequate tools,” as he put it upon becoming Pope. I realized that the former Cardinal Ratzinger was everything I admired in some of my favorite non-religious scholars: that he approaches knowledge not only with great curiosity, but a childlike joy– precisely the way one is supposed to approach God, with an open heart and an open mind that thus allows one to see more clearly. So yes, like you, I think B16 is “my” Pope, too.


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