Brandon Vogt, 26, is a Catholic writer and speaker who blogs at BrandonVogt.com. He’s also the author of The Church and Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet
As an Evangelical Christian in 2008, “God’s Rottweiler” worried me. From what I heard, he was a cold and stodgy disciplinarian with a hyper-traditionalist streak, more likely to crack a whip than save a soul. But then I became Catholic. I devoured his books and studied his speeches, and I discovered a much different man. He was humble, spiritual, and wise—more Gandalf than Stalin.
In the five years since becoming Catholic, Pope Benedict has taught me several lessons. But three stick out in particular: the priority of encountering Christ, the proper interpretation of the Bible, and the astounding power of the new media.
First, when you study Pope Benedict’s work you’ll quickly notice his evangelical bend. He incessantly reminds us that Christianity is not about a philosophy, a set of doctrines, or a moral list of do’s and don’ts: it’s about a relationship with Christ. Those other things certainly matter but they aren’t central—they aren’t the “one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42).
For instance, in a recent speech to Filipino prelates, Pope Benedict defined their sole mission as to “propose a personal relationship with Christ as the key to complete fulfillment.” Likewise, in the Introduction to his second Jesus of Nazareth book we see the same focus: “I have attempted to develop a way of observing and listening to the Jesus of the Gospels that can indeed lead to a personal encounter.”
Coming from an Evangelical background, which stressed the importance of “knowing Jesus in a personal way,” this vision immediately captured me. I saw it as a bridge to my Evangelical friends, for here was a Pope even they could love. In fact, during a roundtable discussion of the Pope’s Jesus of Nazareth series, a well-known Protestant biblical scholar revealed that he would gladly assign the books for his seminary class. He explained that if the series didn’t say “Pope Benedict” on the cover, his students would probably not know they were reading Catholic books. Now, that’s not to say Pope Benedict softens Catholicism for ecumenical purposes—far from it. Instead, it testifies to the central role he gives to encountering Jesus Christ, a “mere Christianity” to which most Protestants happily agree.
The second thing Pope Benedict has taught me regards the interpretation of Scripture. In his recent exhortation on the Word of God, Verbum Domini, he reiterated the Bible’s proper interpretive home: the Church. Just as I wouldn’t make sense of The Lord of the Rings without consulting Tolkien’s intentions, nor determine the Constitution’s meaning without heeding the Supreme Court, I can’t fully understand Scripture without listening to the Church.
Without proper interpretation, critics suggest Tolkien’s epic was really about racial divide and class warfare. Or that the Constitution really supports abortion and “same-sex marriage.” Or that Scripture really advocates slavery and holy wars. Pope Benedict taught me that the same Spirit who inspired the Bible guides the Church today and therefore we must look confidently to her lead when interpreting the written Word of God.
Finally, the new media. While researching my book on the the Church and technology I read everything Pope Benedict said about new media. And that was a lot. Despite being in his mid-eighties, this Pope keenly grasped the power and potential of new media better than most of his younger contemporaries.
In his annual World Communications Day messages, for example, the Pope called these digital tools “a gift to humanity.” Over the years, he’s covered topics like the dangers of self-promotion, the value of silence, and seeking truth and authenticity in the digital world. His latest message, which I consider his best, is titled “Social Networks: Portals of Truth and Faith, New Spaces for Evangelization.”
These tools are especially helpful in reaching non-Catholics: “New horizons are now open that were, until recently, unimaginable…[the new media] stir our wonder at the possibilities.”
With my Facebook profile I can connect with more people than St. Paul, Genghis Khan, Constantine, or Napoleon. With my cell phone I have more evangelical reach than St. Augustine, St. Francis Xavier, or Ven. Fulton Sheen. Pope Benedict agrees and has thus encouraged Catholics to respond to this technology with creativity and ardor.
Pope Benedict has left an indelible mark on my life in the five years I’ve known him. He’s taught me that nothing matters more than knowing and loving Jesus Christ. He’s shown that to understand the Word of God I must view it through the Church’s continuous tradition. And he’s invited me to join an evangelical adventure, riding the barque of a 2,000-year old Church onto the shores of the digital world.