Monday, November 29, 2010

The pope whisperer

PROFILE PETER SEEWALD: THE CASUAL CATHOLIC would be forgiven for thinking this week that, for the second time in history, the world now has two popes. 

The first, familiar one is, the newspapers tell us, a stern, conservative moral theologian.

But the second pope, the one in this week’s headlines, is a revolutionary who apparently wants condoms for all.

For Peter Seewald this was a PR disaster. 

The 54-year-old German journalist had convinced the pope to talk to him about his private life, his personal religious beliefs, and his views on the unique institution he heads and the world in which it operates.

The result, a book named Light of the World , was not just a coup, he told Germany’s Die Zeit last week, but a cracking read that contained a “sensation” towards the end. That much was true, just not the sensation Seewald had in mind.

An excerpt of the book released last weekend suggested the pope had thrown overboard the long-standing Catholic ban on the use of condoms. Subsequent Vatican statements, and Seewald’s book, have shown the pope was speaking in a limited context, for instance to prevent the transmission of a disease.

But by the time of the book’s Vatican presentation, on Tuesday, Seewald had been quizzed for three days about nothing but condoms, condoms and condoms.

He complained to the assembled press that it was a “crisis of journalism” if 17 lines about condoms could overshadow the rest of his 214-page scoop.

Colleagues in Seewald’s native Germany pounced on his remark as proof of their growing suspicion that the man they once viewed as one of their own had gone over to the other side. 

Had he?

Peter Seewald was born in Bochum but grew up in the Bavarian city of Passau, steeped in the region’s conservative Catholic atmosphere. By the age of 18 he had gone from altar boy to Marxist, writing for a left-wing paper and distributing communist pamphlets in his spare time.

In 1981 he joined Der Spiegel magazine and later moved to Stern, by which time his own religious beliefs were, he thought, a distant memory.

It was in this frame of mind that he accepted the assignment that would change his life: to interview Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the Vatican for the magazine of the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

By 1981, after leaving Munich, where he had been the city’s archbishop, Ratzinger had risen to prominence – some would say notoriety – in the Vatican as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Seewald said later that none of the clippings he read on “God’s Rottweiler” prepared him for the “clever, pious and modest” man he met in 1996. 

That interview was the first of many hours of conversation and, said Seewald, the start of a 15-year process that saw him return to the church of his childhood.

Along the way came two book-length interviews with Ratzinger: “Salt of the Earth” and “God and the World”. 

In the intervening years Seewald opened a shop in Munich selling products from monasteries around the world, but closed it again without success.

All the while, he said, he was on a journey back to his faith, one that last summer led him back to Ratzinger, by then Pope Benedict XVI, the first German pope in nearly 500 years.

The pope agreed to meet him in the last week of July in Castel Gandolfo, at the papal summer residence, for six consecutive days of conversation, an hour at a time. 

The published transcript reveals an interesting shift in their relationship.

In 1996 Seewald opened “Salt of the Earth” with a cheeky question to the then cardinal: “It is said, your eminence, that the pope is afraid of you . . .” 

Just two pages on, Ratzinger admits he often feels lonely and tired, not to mention frustrated at the “sclerotic” organisation to which he has dedicated his life.

Later, when the conversation shifts to religion itself, the then sceptic Seewald asks, “How many paths are there to God?” Ratzinger replies: “As many as there are people.”

While this first interview is filled with short, sharp questions, those in “Light of the World” are nebulous and, in many cases, as long as the pope’s answers.

Fr Vincent Twomey, professor emeritus of moral theology in Maynooth, attributes this to the German intellectual tradition in which the two men are talking.

“It’s clear the two have a good rapport and Seebald’s managed to bring across the pope’s humanity, of which we rarely get a glimpse,” says Twomey, a former doctoral student of the pope. 

“I recognise in this book the man I studied with and with whom I often shared a dinner table. It’s the conversation of two people who have grown to respect each other.Whether [Seewald] has let down the journalist side, I can’t say.”

That is the accusation of Seewald’s former colleagues at the Süddeutsche Zeitung. They described the now devout Catholic this week as “drunk” over his journalistic coup.

The newspaper described him as as “Seewald, the authentic interpreter of the pope: that’s how he sees himself now.” 

Later in the article readers were told that his Munich apartment, which he shares with his wife and two children, “also has a holy water font”.

Bavaria’s Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper struck back in a resigned note: “It seems these days that being Catholic is more exotic than Buddhism.”

The newspaper’s editor, Markus Günther, predicts that, after the furore accompanying its publication dies down, Light of the World will shape the public image of the pope as much as Seewald’s two earlier interviews did.

“Going into the conclave in 2005, people knew what Ratzinger thought on so many issues because of those two books,” said Günther. 

“There are many people who say that, without these books, Ratzinger would not have become pope.”

Regardless of one’s views on the pope, Light of the World is of general interest, even if it is only of the prurient Hello! magazine variety.

The pope, we learn, never carries a wallet and has never used the exercise bike given to him by his doctor. 

He says he was “shocked” at being elected pope and prayed silently for the strength to get through his first appearance on the Vatican balcony, let alone the years to come.

He dismisses as “unbelievable nonsense” much of the criticism directed at him for lifting the excommunication of four bishops from the Pius brotherhood.

But he admits he was not fully informed about Bishop Rowan Williamson, who denied there were gas chambers in Auschwitz, and would have acted differently had he known.

At the same time, the pope expresses frustration at what he sees as a “hostility, poised for such events, to then strike out in a targeted way”.

One reason for the clerical child abuse in Ireland, he says, was a failure to apply existing church law from the 1960s on. 

“It came to an unusual darkening of thinking among many very good people,” said the pope.

Twomey suggests Seewald, “with the enthusiasm of a convert”, is anxious for the world to see the 83-year-old pontiff as he does. 

“He peeled aways his own prejudices about the man and discovered the human figure,” says Twomey. 

“That’s all Ratzinger ever expects people to be: honest.”

Curriculm vitae 

Who is he? The pope whisperer.

Why is he in the news? He’s the first journalist to conduct an extended interview with a pope. The result is his book Light of the World.

Most appealing characteristic? Dogged determination to get that interview.

Least appealing characteristic? An ego that has grown with his status, former colleagues say.

Most likely to say “Just a few minutes more, Holy Father.”

Least likely to say “About that Virgin Birth . . .”