This book is a collection of Pope Benedict’s addresses to Wednesday General Audiences spanning one year—from early 2007 to 2008. He offers here a brief analysis of 26 key intellectual figures in the first four centuries of the Church, concluding with five addresses on Augustine (compared to one for most figures and two for Origen, Saint Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrystostom, and Saint Jerome). The time devoted to the Bishop of Hippo obviously reflects his unparalleled importance in the development of early Christian thought, as well as the author’s great appreciation for the Saint.
Benedict is presumably not trying to break new scholarly ground in this work, any more than he was in Jesus of Nazareth or The Apostles. He is after all speaking to a general audience. Students of patristics are not likely to learn much from this book, except perhaps something about the author’s perspective—both in his choice of figures and the time he devotes to each, as well as the way he presents each figure.
The Pope focuses on the spirituality and devotion of the Church Fathers, rather than on their theology. Even the second chapter on Origen, devoted exclusively to his thought, focuses on prayer and the Church and does so in a simple and general way. Thus the text reads less like an introductory text on Patristic theology, and more like short reflections on the lives of the saints. In his second address, he speaks of Ignatius’ letters in a way that might well describe the goal of this book: “In reading these texts, one feels the freshness of the faith of the generation which had still known the Apostles.” The Pope admirably conveys that feeling of freshness in order to inspire his listeners and readers.
An unstated but easily discernable goal of these addresses is to offer a defense of the Church hierarchy and of the “Petrine primacy.” Over and over, Benedict places great emphasis (one might suggest more than the figures he is discussing do) on the very early acknowledgment of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. In his discussion of Irenaeus, he says that all “Christians must observe what their Bishops say,” adding: “All Churches must agree with the Church of Rome.” Though this could certainly be self-serving, Benedict never seems to be asserting his own power, but the power of his position (perhaps a too subtle distinction).
While this book is not a scholarly work, it is most certainly an educational one—and that in two senses. First, it offers lessons about the early Church to the listener or reader. These lessons are not primarily historical or theological, but rather catechetical. Indeed, several times he refers to them as such. Secondly, these addresses can and should serve as a guide for catechetical training. The addresses are exemplary of clear, edifying instruction in Catholic faithfulness and thinking through the ages and its relevance for the lives of the faithful today.
As lay ministers and catechists become the rule rather than the exception, training those who will train all members of the Church is of the utmost importance. One of the distinctive and most valuable assets of the Church is its connection to the past and the development of its thinking that is borne of that connection. It is hard to imagine what that distinctive feature could mean in a Church where formation in the Church is offered by teachers who know little of this rich history themselves. Unfortunately then, this collection provides a much-needed guide and should be read by all of those charged with teaching the faith to the next generation of Catholics.