Q&A with First African to Win Ratzinger Prize, Jesuit Fr. Paul Béré

Jesuit Fr. Paul Beré, winner of Ratzinger Prize 2019, first African ever to win the award

The Ratzinger Prize has, over the years, been awarded to scholars whose contribution to theology is considered outstanding in the spirit of the German theologian, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger who became Pope Benedict XVI. Established in 2011, no African had ever featured among the winners of this prestigious prize. This year, Burkinabé Jesuit priest, Paul Béré made history as the first African ever to win the coveted prize. He will receive the award on November 9.

A week after he received the news of winning the award, Fr. Béré has granted ACI Africa an exclusive interview in which he explains his academic accomplishments, what the award means in itself and the impact of the prize on him as an African theologian.

ACI Africa: Who is Paul Béré from an academic perspective?

Fr. Béré: I specialized in Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, benefitting from a semester joint programme with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the Rothberg International School. While on the doctoral programme, I taught Greek at the Pontifical Biblical Institute.

I created a Research Department in the Institut de Théologie de la Compagnie de Jésus (ITCJ) in Abidjan (Ivory Coast). I then created a bilingual (English – French) journal to promote theological research in Africa, called Kanien. I later created a Chair named after Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, the first African to hold a doctorate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. The Chair promotes research in Scripture by making room for international bible scholars to share their latest research with the academic community of ITCJ and sister institutions in Abidjan.


ACI Africa: Joseph Ratzinger is a foundation that has been awarding prizes since 2011. What is this Ratzinger prize?

Fr. Béré: The “Joseph Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI Foundation” of the Vatican City aims to promote research and study of theology, with a particular reference to Sacred Scripture, Patristics, and Fundamental Theology. The statutes of the Foundation say that the Ratzinger Award is granted to those “scholars who have distinguished themselves for particular merits in the activity of publication and / or in scientific research.” Basically, Joseph Ratzinger’s life as a theologian of an outstanding caliber and a humble servant of the Church serves as a yardstick to measure the work of theologians and specialists of other fields.

ACI Africa: On September 30, it was announced in Rome that you are the first African theologian to receive the Ratzinger award. How did you qualify for the award?

Fr. Béré: I really cannot tell because the deliberation remains within the report of the Scientific Committee. The Press Conference released by the President of the Foundation, Fr. (Federico) Lombardi, and by a member of the Scientific Committee, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, helps us imagine that they want to highlight African Theology, and they have picked my name to illustrate the kind of contribution to the development of African Theology they would like to encourage.

I did not intend to be seen. My deep desire was to really promote an in-depth research in theology for the Church in Africa, and for African societies.

More in Africa

Cardinal Ravasi pointed out my work on the book of Joshua, where the ideas of the land, leadership (Moses and Joshua), and the issue of transmission spoke to my own African context. The Cardinal further underlined an aspect of my research with an extraordinary grasp that amazed me: “Aural Criticism”. This line of my research looks at Scripture from the point of view of the “aural audience.” I want my people to be able to take part in construing the meaning of the biblical text, just as the people of the Bible itself did when the biblical texts were written.

As far as I know, this perspective is completely new in the field of exegesis that is the scientific interpretation of the Bible. I still need to continue exploring it and writing about it for the benefit of the scientific community, and of Africa where the “word-cultures” vs. the “written-cultures” can shed more light on the mysteries of the Bible. These concepts should not be reduced to “oral-cultures” vs. “written-cultures”. A “word-culture” can using writing, but the all the values of communication remain at the “spoken word” level, and continuously solicit “memory” and live interactions.

ACI Africa: What does this Ratzinger award mean to you personally?

Fr. Béré: First of all, it honors the labor of African Theologians. The echo I got from my African theologians worldwide confirms that. Secondly, it encourages me to pursue my own research in the field of Scripture. Africa has the potential to bring some insight into the exegetical work. Inculturation is not limited to dogmatic, moral, or spiritual theology, canon law, etc. It should involve Scripture studies as well.

In 2012, I gave a conference in Slovakia using “aural criticism”, and an American Bible scholar made a remark that stayed with me since then. He said: “Paul, it is because you are an African that you were able to see what you have demonstrated.” I did not mention Africa at all in my talk. The Ratzinger Award recognizes such a culturally inspired approach to the Bible. Thirdly, it gives more credibility to my voice whenever I speak to my students and show them the way forward to serve the Church in Africa. They will not fear to be led astray.


ACI Africa: So, what impact does this award have on you as an African theologian? 

Fr. Béré: The Award strengthens my self-esteem because as an African in some spheres we are “voiceless,” even when we speak. It confirms me on the way I have traveled so far in my research. You know, when one speaks of “Rhetorical Criticism” as a new way of approaching the biblical text, it refers to one single article that came out James Muilenburg 1969 speech. He urged the scholarly guild to go beyond form criticism. His voice was heard. How many African Bible scholars spoke on alternative ways of reading the Bible, but were not heard? The Award becomes the voice of the voiceless.

ACI Africa: This is the 9th award of Ratzinger price since 2011. You are going to be the first African to receive it. What might have previously hindered Africans from receiving it?

Fr. Béré: I really do not know. I think any other African theologian could have been picked. Irrespective of whom they picked, I guess we have no visibility on the world stage for various reasons. One of the reasons why I was surprised by this award is precisely that. I did not expect that my own research would attract the attention of the world outside Africa.

We still need a better exposure of our contributions. Here we run into a dilemma: if we are interested in talking to our own local audience, the world might not be interested in us; if we are interested in being recognized by the world outside, we might not be relevant to our communities.

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The move of the Ratzinger Foundation tells another story, namely that the Church serves the interests of all the communities. My own consolation comes from the messages I received from other African theologians, such as Professor Benezet Bujo, who expressed their joy for the recognition of African theology, and for having been honored by the Foundation through me. This is where one experiences our Ubuntu life philosophy.

ACI Africa: What advice would you give African scholars in your field following your accomplishments? 

Fr. Béré:  Well, I really do not have a piece of advice to give. I think we have to continue doing what we have been doing. As I said, I focused on serving the Church both local, regional, and global through my intellectual work. I would not advise any theologian to be looking for awards, but to genuinely work for the good of the faithful, for the communities. It should come as an unexpected gift of God to encourage us in our endeavour.

ACI Africa: Any other information in reference to this award?

Fr. Béré: Professor Joseph Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI epitomizes for us, African theologians, the kind of intellectual apostolate we should be dedicated to. He never ceased to reflect on various issues that are relevant to the life and mission of the Church. Africa is deeply in need of more intellectual light on its life and mission. May this Award be a stimulus for all of us, my colleagues and myself, and for all those who would like to engage in this type of apostolate in Africa.