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Holiness and the History of the Church in Benedict XVI’s General Audiences
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When Benedict XVI was elected to the papacy in 2005, he continued to deliver the weekly General Audiences on the psalms and canticles that comprise Vespers using the text that St. John Paul II had prepared. After completing that cycle of talks in February 2006, Benedict began his own series on the great figures of the history of the Church with the stated intention of reflecting on “the mystery of the relation between Christ and the Church.” As part of this series of audiences, which lasted until April 2011, Benedict delivered 170 addresses on the most significant figures in the history of early, medieval, and early-modern Christianity, proceeding chronologically from the apostles, through the Eastern and Western Church fathers and doctors and concluding with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. These audiences can be counted among the most important contributions of Benedict’s pontificate not only by reason of their numerical extent and historical breadth, but especially on account of their pastoral and theological significance. In this article, I will offer an overview of this series of audiences, explore the influence of history on Benedict’s theological vision, and consider how Benedict offers an apology for the truth of Christianity by chronicling the historical unfolding of sanctity.

I. The Scope of Benedict XVI’s General Audiences on the History of the Church

With the complete cycle of addresses in view and following the cues given in the audiences themselves, it is possible to discern ten parts. Benedict begins with an introductory set of seven talks reflecting on the apostolic constitution of the Church. He then turns to the apostles, dedicating fifteen talks to the Twelve. The numerical discrepancy is accounted for by the fact that Peter and John each receive three addresses, while Simon shares one with Jude and Judas shares one with his successor, Matthias. Next, Benedict turns his attention to the first witnesses of the Christian faith mentioned in the New Testament, with Paul being the focus of four of the nine talks. The next section features the principal writers, theologians, and doctors of the Eastern and Western Church, stretching from Clement of Rome to John Duns Scotus. Interspersed within this extensive series of eighty-four addresses are two interruptions. To mark the Year of St. Paul, which the Church celebrated in 2008 and 2009, Benedict delivered twenty talks dedicated exclusively to Paul in addition to the four already given in 2006. Similarly, during the Year for Priests that followed, he reflected on the essential character of the priesthood by drawing attention to a number of holy priests. While these two subsets of audiences do not follow the chronological structure of the other audiences, they nevertheless share the same pastoral program of calling attention to saintly historical figures and, for this reason, can be seen as belonging to the larger project. Returning to the saints and theologians of the medieval period, Benedict continues his trajectory until he reaches Duns Scotus and then dedicates sixteen audiences to the greatest of the medieval women saints. Using Teresa of Avila as a bridge, he ventures beyond the medieval period to focus his attention on the eight remaining doctors of the Church that had not already received his attention. One final concluding talk sums up the entire series by focusing on the theme of holiness. The following table summarizes the entire cycle of audiences:

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Table 1. 

Benedict XVI’s General Audiences on the History of the Church

Notwithstanding some exceptions, which will be described momentarily, each of the addresses focuses on a notable figure from the history of the Church and follows the same general format. In each case, Benedict offers a brief biography, surveys the individual’s literary output, and highlights some of the principal themes that emerge from this person’s life and work in order to identify what is of enduring relevance for contemporary Christians. In addition, many of the addresses conclude with a brief exhortation drawn directly from that person’s writings.

It is possible to determine which figures Benedict thinks are the most important or, at least, those who have most influenced his own theological vision by noting the number of addresses...

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