Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s latest – and seemingly last – book, Final Conversations, appeared in Rome on Friday. It won’t be available in English until November though you can read it, in Italian only for now, on Kindle. It’s the fourth of such “conversations” with German journalist Peter Seewald and, like its predecessors, is a winsome encounter with Joseph Ratzinger, both as one of the greatest living minds, and as a charming and unassuming human being.
The advance notices of the book understandably tout some of the more notorious public episodes of his papacy: his handling of bishops and cardinals who protected abusive priests, the “Vatileaks” scandal (when Paolo Gabriele the papal butler stole sensitive documents in order “to protect” the pope), and – of course – Benedict’s resignation, something never before done by a sitting pope in full possession of his faculties.
All of more than passing interest to anyone concerned about Catholicism and the Church. But beyond such expected subjects, perhaps of even greater interest are some of the personal revelations Seewald – by now a trusted conversation partner – is able to elicit. Who knew, for instance, that Ratzinger is now blind in his left eye and has hearing loss, among other debilities of old age? Or that he still meticulously prepares Sunday sermons, even though his household consists of four of five persons?
To his credit, Seewald bores in on the big public subjects and doesn’t let up after one, two, three, or more tries to get a full answer. (The kind of interviewing we would benefit from – but almost never see – in the secular media.) For those of us who have had many questions about Papa Ratzinger’s last few years, this book helps a great deal, without perhaps ultimately answering all of them.
For example, Seewald presses Benedict about Vatileaks and its possible connections with his resignation. Rome has been filled with conspiracy theories about some sort of effort “to blackmail” Benedict. (It., ricattare, a word you don’t often hear in Italian, but don’t forget once you have.) Benedict consistently replies to these probings that they are “absurdities”: the butler was a simple, misguided man, as later investigations showed; there was no blackmail because “there was nothing to blackmail about.” Anyway, “If they had tried it, I would not have left, because you don’t leave when you are under pressure to do so.”
But this opens up another large set of questions. Why, then, resign? You must have realized the effect it would have, not least that some people would come to think that the Petrine office was just another job, one you can leave like any other, at any time. It risks a secularization of the office. And especially after the heroic way St. John Paul II ended his life, you might be seen as having decided to refuse to bear the cross.
“Do you ever regret resigning, ever for just a minute?” “No, I see every day that it was the right thing to do. . . .It was something that I had long reflected on, and which I had even long spoken about with the Lord.” St. JPII had his own path to follow, and Benedict discerned what God wanted to be his. The Church needed someone who could handle the full range of papal responsibilities. It was a decision made in serenity, he even slept well the night before the announcement.
Pushed by Seewald on whether he had foreseen his successor, Benedict flatly says: no. Yes, Bergoglio was a strong candidate in the previous conclave, but by 2013 it seemed that was water under the bridge. He was surprised, but pleased ultimately – even praising the freshness that the pope has brought to the office and the global dimension he represents, now that Europe is, frankly, no longer the dynamic center of Catholicism.
All the above is a bare-bones account of the first part of the interview, but as you might expect, when you’re speaking with someone like Joseph Ratzinger, every one of these points is also accompanied by sharp insights and large perspectives about Christianity and the world – a performance not to be missed.
But neither is the second part of the book, wherein Seewald takes Ratzinger through the course of his whole life, beginning with his youth in Bavaria and his teen years under Nazism. They necessarily touch on the subject of the Church’s relationship with the Third Reich. Ratzinger affirms, almost as something that goes without saying, that Catholics all knew that, if Hitler triumphed, the Church would be destroyed.
After his defeat, not many wanted to be identified with the Nazi Party, so much so that his local pastor once joked: “When it’s all over, we’ll get to the point where they’ll say that the only Nazis were the priests.” Everyone laughed, says Ratzinger, “No one could imagine such a thing. . . .The idea that the Church was in some way a collaborator never crossed our minds. It’s a later artifact.”
There are many pages here on the course of Ratzinger’s spiritual and intellectual life, his work at Vatican II, the hijacking of the Council by media savvy dissidents like Hans Küng, and the continuing chaos and division within the Church. But perhaps the most striking passage on these matters comes when Seewald asks how, precisely, a simple son of a Bavarian policeman became a priest – and one of the great thinkers and leaders of the modern world:
it was in order to enter more and more into the liturgy. To recognize that that the liturgy was truly the central point and to try to comprehend it, together with the whole historical development undergirding it. . . .Because of this, then, I became generally interested in religious questions. It was the world in which I felt myself at ease.
So there were no mystical experiences, no dramatic turning points? Don’t you ever have doubts or those famous “dark nights of the soul” even St. Mother Teresa had? With his usual tranquility and humility: No, no doubts. And as to dark nights, “Such strong experiences, no. Maybe I’m not holy enough to reach that darkness.”