Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Peter Seewald: Life after retirement for Pope Benedict

In 2013 Pope Benedict became the first pontiff in 600 years to retire. Peter Seewald, a confidante of the 89-year-old, opens the door…


With my book Last Testament we gain unrestricted access to the life of Joseph Ratzinger (pictured), a life which covers most of the 20th century, and to a man who is one of the most influential thinkers of the present, one of the most brilliant and charismatic figures of our time.

I’m often asked how this book came about. Some ask if Pope Benedict has broken his promise to withdraw into silence after his resignation. No, he has not. 

The recordings of our conversations were not origin-ally meant to lead to a separate project but rather as an aid for my writing of Ratzinger’s biography. It was anything but easy for me to convince Pope Benedict that it was important to publish this text first.

Last Testament is a world first and a historical document. Never before in the long history of the Church has a Pope drawn his own pontificate to a close. So we have an opportunity to get authentic information here, without any distortion by the media. The point of the project was to keep the way open for us to engage with his life and work.

It has made me angry to see how a silly understanding of him has encroached on public perceptions.It has made me angry to see how a silly understanding of him has encroached on public perceptions. They say: Ratzinger was the wrong choice as Pope, his greatest deed was his resignation! What rubbish. This not only contradicts the historical truth, it is also dangerous. It prevents us from engaging with Pope Benedict’s important message.

Last Testament is not a matter of justifying the Pope’s work, nor dealing with the accusations levelled at him, and certainly not an attempt at whitewashing his legacy. 

Rather, it is about the information, and about providing illuminating insights into the life and work of one of the great characters of the age. It also takes the wind out of the sails of the speculation and conspiracy theories surrounding Benedict’s resignation. In this book we learn how it really was.

The interviews for the book took place in a very pleasant atmosphere in a small monastery in the Vatican Gardens to which Pope Benedict withdrew after his papacy. I’d go there to meet him, offer him my hand, and then usually ask: “How’s it going?” He would answer: “It’s going the way things go for an old man.” And then I’d get straight to the questions in order to make full use of the time I had with him.

It was important to me to preserve a certain journ-alistic distance. Joseph Ratzinger is not a chummy kind of guy who pats you on the back, anyway. But he is without arrogance and vanity, and he makes it easy to pose the kind of questions which won’t be easy for him. And he impresses with the openness of his answers. Then the beauty of his language takes you deeper into the depth of this thinking.

An encounter with him is always very cheerful because he is a musical person, a poet, an artist. We have laughed a lot together. One of his friends once said: “Ratzinger never complains.” He is like Mozart in this respect, never letting his personal problems overcloud the joviality of his work. 

In this respect he hasn’t changed in the 20 years I’ve spent time with him. I have to say: every one of the first-hand witnesses to Pope Benedict’s life have shaken their heads at the image of the so-called ‘Panzerkardinal’, which some people in the media continue to propagate. 

As a theologian of the people, he has never forgotten that he comes from very simple circumstances. It remains a mystery to me how Ratzinger could master the epic job of being Pontifex for the Roman Catholic Church, with its 1.3 billion members – considering his old age and various health issues – and at the same time write his three-volume work about Jesus Christ.

Pope Benedict acknowledges the exhaustion he experienced at the end of his pontificate. He gave of himself right up to the last minute he was in office. Other popes are characterised by their pontificates, above all. With Ratzinger there is a corpus of writings which is significant and great regardless of his papacy. 

But we have here not only a profoundly important intellectual. We have a spiritual master, a modern-day father of the Church, who leaves behind a store of writings which is almost inexhaustible. Above all, Ratzinger has shown us that religion and science, faith and reason, are not opposites.

From the beginning, I was impressed by his realism, his courage and his strong-heartednessFrom the beginning, I was impressed by his realism, his courage and his strong-heartedness. Ratzinger sees his Church as a resistance movement against the bedevilment of this age, against the Godforsakenness of fundamentalist atheism and new forms of paganism. 

He encourages us not to be bedazzled or carried away by the latest contemporary trends. 

Yet at the same time he sets us against being rigid or narrow-minded but rather leads us toward being open to the necessary changes presented to us by the times in which we live.

He himself was willing to do things which no one had done before. Asked about the nature of his succ-essor, Pope Benedict says: “I think it’s good.” This does not mean that he finds everything agreeable. On the other hand, Francis says that Benedict had been “a great Pope”. “His spirit,” Francis tells us, “will appear greater and more powerful from generation to generation.”

With Benedict XVI an era came to an end. He is a Pope for changing times, someone who has built a bridge for the coming new era, however that era will be. His most important reminder for us can be seen when he says: “A society where God is absent destroys itself. This is what we have seen in the great totalitarian experiments of the last century.”

Benedict XVI Last Testament: In His Own Words with Peter Seewald is out now (Bloomsbury £16.99). Translated by Robin Baird-Smith

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