Papal Message for Centenary of von Balthasar's Birth

Reflections on Swiss Theologian

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 10, 2005 ( Here is the message Benedict XVI sent to the participants in the international congress entitled «Love Alone Is Credible,» held at the Lateran University, on the centenary of the birth of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

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Lord Cardinals
Venerated Brothers in the Episcopate and the Priesthood,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a particular pleasure to unite myself spiritually to you in the celebration of the centenary of the birth of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the noted Swiss theologian whom I had the joy to know and meet frequently. I think that his theological reflection maintains intact, to this day, a profound timeliness and leads many to penetrate ever more in the profundity of the mystery of faith, held by the hand of such an authoritative guide.

On an occasion such as this, it would be easy to fall into the temptation to return to personal memories, based on the sincere friendship that united us and on the numerous works that we undertook together, addressing many of the challenges of those years. The foundation of the Communio review, at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, continues to be the most evident sign of our common commitment in theological research. However, I do not wish to make reference to memories, but rather to the richness of von Balthasar’s theology.

He made the mystery of the Incarnation the favored object of his study, seeing in the «triduum paschale» [Easter triduum] — as he significantly entitled one of his writings — the most expressive form of God’s entry in the history of man. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, in fact, is revealed in fullness the mystery of the Trinitarian love of God. Here the reality of faith finds its unsurpassable «beauty.» In the «drama» of the paschal mystery, God fully lives his humanity, but at the same time gives meaning to man’s action and content to Christian commitment in the world.

This is how von Balthasar saw the «logic» of Revelation: God became man so that man may live the communion of life with God. In Christ is offered the final and definitive truth of the search for meaning that each one poses to himself. Theological aesthetics, drama and logic, constitute the trilogy, in which these concepts find ample space and convinced application. I can attest that his life was a genuine search for truth, which he understood as a search of the true Life. He sought the traces of God’s presence and his truth everywhere: in philosophy, in literature, in religions, always breaking those circuits which often imprison reason, opening it to the realms of the infinite.

Hans Urs von Balthasar was a theologian who put his research at the service of the Church, as he was convinced that only theology could be characterized by the ecclesial. Theology, as and how he conceived it, had to be combined with spirituality; only in this way, in fact, could it be profound and effective.

Reflecting specifically on this aspect, he wrote: «Does scientific theology only begin with Peter Lombard? And, yet, is there someone who has spoken of Christianity in a more appropriate way than Cyril of Jerusalem, than Origen in his homilies, than Gregory of Nazianzus, and than the master of theological reverence, the Areopagite? Who would dare to reproach anything to any of the Fathers? Then it was known what the theological style was, the natural unity both in the attitude of faith and the scientific attitude as in objectivity and reverence. While theology was the work of saints, it was a praying theology. This is the reason why its fruits of prayer, its fecundity for prayer and its power to generate it are so disproportionately great» («Verbum Caro,» «Saggi Teologici» [Theological Essays] I, Brescia, 1970, 228).

These are words that lead us to think again about the correct place of research in theology. The need to be scientific is not sacrificed when placed in religious listening of the Word of God, when it lives from the life of the Church and is strengthened by her magisterium. Spirituality does not diminish its scientific weight, but imprints on theological study the correct method to be able to arrive at a coherent interpretation.

A theology conceived in this way led von Balthasar to a profound existential reading. For this reason, one of the central topics to which he dedicated himself with pleasure was to show the need for conversion. Change of heart was a central point for him; only in this way, in fact, is the mind freed from the limits that prevent it from acceding to the mystery and the eyes become capable of fixing their gaze on the face of Christ.

In a word, he had understood profoundly that theology can only be developed with prayer which is capable of perceiving the presence of God and trusts in him obediently. It is a path worth following to the end. This calls for avoiding unilateral paths which can only distance one from the goal and calls for fleeing from the fashions that fragment interest in the essential. The example that von Balthasar has left us is rather that of an authentic theologian who had discovered in contemplation the coherent action in favor of Christian witness in the world. In this significant circumstance, we remember him as a man of faith, a priest who in obedience and hiddenness, never sought personal affirmation, but full of the Ignatian spirit always desired the greater glory of God.

With these sentiments, I wish that all of you continue with interest and enthusiasm the study of von Balthasar’s work and that you find paths for its efficacious application. Upon you and the working sessions of the congress I call on the Lord abundant gifts of light, as a pledge of which I impart a special blessing.

Vatican, October 6, 2005


[Translation by ZENIT]

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