The president of the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation reports on the book “Ultime conversazioni”.
Vatican City, 9th September 2016 – The new interview-book of Benedict XVI’s conversation with Peter Seewald is available in bookstores in several languages from September, 9th, which is a surprise for many people, a beautiful surprise.
It is a surprise because, since Benedict XVI had chosen to live a retired life of prayer and meditations, we would not have expected him to give such a long interview to a reporter.
After the shocking first part, the book’s easy reading and its precious, valuable, useful and interesting examples provide the beautiful surprise.
Two valuable parts stand out: one in the First Part and the other in the final chapter of the Third Part of the book.
The first and most interesting part is the moving account of the spiritual experience of the old emeritus pontiff, who is “on the way to arriving to the presence of God” (225). Benedict XVI speaks calmly and tells how he is living the last stage of his life in meditation and prayer. John Paul II had told us how he could bear the deep suffering of his illness thanks to his faith. Benedict XVI gives us the example of a man of God who is old and preparing himself for death. He does so with humbleness and humanity, realizing that his physical weakness makes it difficult to always stay in the “high lands of the spirit” (23). He tells us about the great mystery of God, the doubts of his spiritual life that are still troubling him, for example the evil in the world. He also tells us about Jesus Christ, who acts as the main point of reference in his life; he sees Jesus “straight in front of him”, “always great and mysterious” and he also states that “I now find a lot of words of the Gospel more difficult than in the past, because of their richness” (26).
The elderly pontiff feels he is reaching the threshold of the mystery “without leaving the certainty of faith and remaining absorbed in it”. “We realize that we must be humble, because if we don’t understand the words of the Holy Scriptures we have to wait until the Lord makes them clear to us” (27).
He describes his life and the fact that he feels “the burden of guilt”, he regrets not having done more for others, but he trusts in the faithful love of God. When they meet “he will ask him to be indulgent with his misery” and he thinks that “he will be really at home” in eternal life (28).
Another important aspect of the book in our opinion – though less important than the previous one - is the firm and calm answer Ratzinger gives to the unjustified ruminations on the reasons behind his resignation from the Petrine ministry, as if it was due to scandals or conspiracies. Stimulated by the questions Seewald asks him, Benedict clears it up once and for all; he speaks about the path of discernment through which he came to the decision before God; he communicated and defended it without any hesitation. He stresses the fact that there were no pressing problems; rather they were all mostly solved by the time he took his decision. He didn’t make a retreat because of urgent events nor did he run away because he wasn’t able to face them” (38).
Aside from responding to unfounded interpretations, Benedict gives the real motivations of his resignation and he does so in such a spontaneous way that they appear reasonable and convincing.
In a certain sense, the fact that a Pope makes his resignation when he finds himself unable to bear his responsibilities as the head of the Church – due to physical and mental weakness – is right and proper. Even if every Pope is free to decide, it is certain that Benedict offered an example of discernment and he actually gave – we might also say ‘definitively’ gave – an easier opportunity of choice for his successors.
The above mentioned topics justify the publication of the book while Benedict is still alive.
Moreover, in the Second and Third Part, the conversation shifts to other topics regarding the entire life of Joseph Ratzinger, from his family of origin to his pontificate. As Seewald himself has explained in a recent interview (Christ und Welt, Zeit online, 7.9.2016) we must recognise that the book was born from several conversations with the interviewer (in August and November 2012, before the resignation; in July and December 2013 and in February 2014, after the resignation) with a view to writing a future biography and clarifying situations, episodes and special meetings that occurred during the long life and activities of the Interviewee.
We don’t know if and when Seewald will write a real biography. This most certainly is not it. However, with concise paragraphs introducing chapters and proper questioning Seewald organises Benedict’s answers in a rapid chronological sequence. The answers are clear and meaningful and they are expressed with a sincere and personal tone that make it a very engaging read.
The pages dedicated to the most significant topics are very interesting: Nazism and the family and the ecclesial experience of the young Ratzinger, the exciting cultural atmosphere in which the young theology professor lived in Bonn during the rebirth of Germany after the catastrophes of the war; his personal contribution as an expert of the Second Vatican Council on the relationship between Scriptures, Tradition and Teachings; his more and more critical view of other German theologians on the understanding of nature itself and the role of theology related to the faith of the Church; his deep and long relationship of closeness and collaboration with Pope Wojtyla
A lot of people will be interested in the answers that contribute towards drawing a ‘balance’ of the Pontificate of Benedict XVI starting from its guide-lines. The following are some hints.
“First of all it was all I wanted to do: to put the theme of God and faith at the centre and give first place to the Holy Scriptures. I studied theology and I know that my strength (if I have any) is to announce the faith in a positive way. For this reason, first of all I wanted to teach starting from the fullness of the Holy Scriptures and Tradition... I knew that my Pontificate wouldn’t be a long one. I couldn’t make long term plans and organise fantastic projects...I wouldn’t have asked for a new Council, but I wanted to stress the synodal element” (180).
Benedict tries over and over to highlight the spirit of his Pontificate, whose distinctive character is defined by the “Year of the Faith”: “a renewed encouragement to believe, to live a life starting from the centre and the dynamism of the faith in order to rediscover God through Christ and so to rediscover the importance of faith” (217). There is no doubt that the great work Jesus made has a central role in Benedict XVI’s Pontificate. It was not simply the exercise of a theologian in his “free time” that he inherited from his service as a Pope, but rather his most relevant service to the Church because “if we no longer know Jesus, it is the end of the Church...and if Jesus is destroyed or dismissed by a certain kind of exegesis, it will be an enormous danger” (192-193).
In Ratzinger’s reflection eschatology, or “the last realities”, and Jesus have always had a central role. His theology was not separated from life: now it goes on the same way and it leads to his everyday meditation on the last realities and to his way of living, always in front of Jesus.
Even looking at his Pontificate, with its lights and shadows, he is calm and clear headed; as it is for the people who “count their days”; he has learnt to look at the things of the earthly world with “wisdom of the heart” (Psalm 90), and he can put his life and work in God’s care with trust.