In His Own Words
Benedict XVI, with Peter Seewald
xx + 257 p.
This is the latest, and reportedly is to be the last, in a series of book-length interviews which Peter Seewald has conducted with Joseph Ratzinger. The first was The Ratzinger Report, issued when he was Prefect of the CDF, and now, of course, he is our Pope Emeritus. This week marks the fourth anniversary of his resignation from the papal office, and seems a good opportunity to reflect on his life and contributions to the Church.
Given the drama of his resignation from the papacy and the turmoil that has roiled through the Church during Francis’ pontificate, this is a remarkably even-keeled and unsensational entry in the series. They do discuss his decision to resign, putting to rest worries that he was somehow pressured to do so, but for the most part the focus is on Benedict’s biography: his childhood, his decision to become a priest, his theological training, his participation in Vatican II, and his eventual move to Rome. In this sense it retreads, to a certain extent, the ground covered by his memoir, Milestones, but it was good to be reminded of certain details that I had forgotten, or had never known in the first place.
Among these was the surprising discovery that he had had a fairly close relationship with Hans Küng in the early days; they had taught courses together in Tübingen. At that time, they were both considered “progressives”, but obviously their paths parted as the years went on. I was also surprised to learn that when teaching in Münster Ratzinger had been friends with Josef Pieper, meeting at his home, with others, every Sunday afternoon for conversation. I suppose it makes sense that these two great Catholic intellectuals, being contemporaries and both Germans, would know one another, but I hadn’t known it to be actually the case.
One of Benedict’s acts as Pope — one of the more striking and unexpected — was to canonize and elevate to a Doctor of the Church the medieval mystic and composer Hildegard of Bingen. In this interview we learn that he has had a fascination with her since childhood: “The figure of Hildegard always followed me; it was always engaging, always precious to me.”
About his papacy, which Seewald’s introduction aptly describes as “the great retreat the Church needed, to buttress the interior castle and to strengthen her soul”, his modesty is remarkable — or would be remarkable, did we not already know the man. He reiterates his statement that his election in 2005 was like “a guillotine”, which he accepted strictly from obedience to the Holy Spirit and not from anything remotely like personal ambition. It’s well-known that he repeatedly asked John Paul II if he could retire from the CDF and return to academic life, but his request was always denied. When Seewald asks him what he’d really liked to have done in his life, he answers:
“I would have liked to have worked intellectually more… But I’m nevertheless content with the other turn of events, with what has happened… What I could do, as I said, is something other than what I wanted — I wanted my whole life long to be a real professor — but afterwards I see it was good how it went.”
Understand that by “what has happened” he is referring to his being Pope. This indifference to power is one of the aspects of his personality that endears him to me, and to many others. Another is his self-effacement. When asked to compare himself to St John Paul II, he said, with some wit, “I had a different sort of charisma, or rather a non-charisma”, and when asked, a bit cheekily I felt, how the papacy of Francis “corrects” his own, he answered good-naturedly, averring to his preference for solitude: “Perhaps I was not truly among the people enough”. I wish Seewald had asked the same question the other way around, but he didn’t.
About his resignation, Benedict is straightforward: he was tired, and felt he could not adequately manage the many responsibilities. He recalls, with tears in his eyes, his last day as Pope, being airlifted out of the Vatican while all the church bells of Rome rang out below him.
All in all, the present volume is probably a rather minor entry in this important series of interviews, but it is one of the most personal, and for those of us who feel a filial affection for the man, it is a wonderful opportunity to spend time in his company.