Journalist Peter Seewald: Pope Benedict is “one of the most misunderstood personalities of our time”

The German journalist reflects on his latest book-length interview with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whom he considers among history’s most significant popes.

It is well-known that Pope Francis regularly grants interviews to various media outlets, and has done so since the earliest days of his papacy. As a result, it seems as if each successive interview is received with less fanfare, and the words of the Holy Father are watched with breath a little less bated.

His predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, was never one to give interviews so frequently. However, over the last 25 years, he has granted four book-length interviews to German journalist Peter Seewald—Salt of the EarthGod and the WorldLight of the World, and now Last Testament: In His Own Words (Bloomsbury, 2016). This most recent (and perhaps final) installment in the series of interviews, Last Testament contains many insights into the life and personality of Joseph Ratzinger.

The interviewer, Peter Seewald, brings his own intriguing personal story to these interviews. Raised Catholic, he left the practice of the Faith in his youth and became an ardent communist. It was the time he spent interviewing then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that famously brought Seewald back home to the Church. Their professional relationship developed into a close friendship, and this can be seen in the pages of this latest book.

The interview sessions comprising Last Testament began before Benedict’s announcement of his resignation, and continued shortly thereafter. As a result, these interviews—which initially were conceived as research for Seewald’s biography of Benedict—became a venue for Benedict to give an unfiltered account of his papacy, of how he views its successes and failings, as well as one more exploration into his analysis of the blessings and problems of today’s world, and a reflection on his life up to this point.

Mr. Seewald spoke with CWR by email in December 2016. His responses were translated by the translator of Last Testament, Jacob Phillips.

German journalist Peter Seewald holds a copy of his book-length interview with Pope Benedict XVI

CWR: You were born in Germany to a Catholic family. Can you tell us a little bit about your faith journey up to this point?

Peter Seewald: During the student rebellions of 1968 I began to engage with politics. Christianity seemed something of a relic from the past then. I felt that its mixture of power and madness had to be overcome in order finally to build a genuinely progressive society. So one day I withdrew myself from the Church. I felt liberated, and I fought for the ideas of Marx and Lenin. Now, with the passage of time, I’ve left communism behind me. We did not know then what atrocities and millions of victims Maoism left behind in China (or rather, we did not want to know), but it was clear to me that these ideological systems cannot be reconciled with human dignity.

As a journalist who followed developments in society closely, I could now see that with the decline of Christianity in the West, the basic level of our culture, indeed of civilization, completely sank away with it. It was obvious that there was a link between forsaking the conviction that the world is created and belongs to a created order—an eclipse of God—and the danger of a new barbarism. When I had the opportunity of conducting a long interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1992, I was fascinated by the fact that from the faith, knowledge, and tradition of the Catholic Church there are answers that correspond to the problems of our time. Yes, the message the faith brings with it is an offer that one cannot fundamentally dismiss out of hand.

CWR: This is the fourth book-length interview you have done with Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict. Whose idea was it to do one more? Did Benedict go into this with the intention of giving his “final word” on his life and papacy, as far as you know?

Seewald: Originally, these recordings were not meant for a separate publication, but as an aid to my work on a biography of Ratzinger. However, I then came to see they would constitute an incomparable historical document, and I realized that this text should not be withheld from the world. Pope Benedict was not in favor at first. But I could convince him that the book was a good idea. The prerequisite for him was that Pope Francis gave his consent.

So our conversation is not some text published for self-justification, nor did Pope Benedict want to give his “last word.” It just turned out that we had an unexpected chance to get authentic information from the chief shepherd of the world Church, without any distortion from the media. This book clarifies in particular the circumstances and reasons for the historic resignation, and ends the speculations and conspiracy theories which surround it.

In essence this book is about keeping the doors to Benedict’s life’s work and message open, for this message is something I am convinced is indispensable for the future of the Church, of faith, and of society. 

CWR: Having done so many interviews with him, and knowing him for so long, was there anything new that you learned in this most recent set of interviews?

Seewald: Yes, there was a lot. I didn’t know, for example, that he was completely blind in one eye even before his election as pope, that he had heart problems, that he didn’t expect to live long. Expecting a short period of office, one doesn’t make long-term plans but only deals with the most urgent matters.

What hit him hardest was his being reproached for anti-Semitism in connection with the Williamson affair. He is one of the pioneers of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Had he been properly informed about Williamson’s attitude, the reprieve of the excommunication of the Society of St. Pius X bishops would not have happened.

His humanity is moving. He says that when he needs to think deeply and clearly, he always has to recline on a sofa. And the fact he is not a merely functional character is shown by the story of an unhappy love during his time as a student. He was a fresh-faced, youthful man, who wrote poems and read Hermann Hesse. He had an effect on women, and they had an effect on him. He did not make the decision to be become a celibate priest easily.

The book describes his life in service, [a life] whose whole existence was placed in the service of proclaiming Christ, and which subordinated even his own happiness to the most burdensome and thankless tasks. He suffered enormously for it, without becoming embittered.

CWR: The interviews for this book took place both before and after Pope Benedict’s resignation announcement in February 2013. How shocked were you at the announcement?

Seewald: My reaction was, “Oh no, please don’t, not yet!” A radio reporter called me on my iPhone and asked me whether the news was true or was just a scam.

I always knew that for Pope Benedict resignation was a real option. In our interviews published as Light of the World I asked him if he’d ever thought about resignation, and he answered, “If one’s psychological as well as physical power is no longer sufficient, the pope has the right and even the duty to step down.” But I had not expected it actually to take place at that point of time.

CWR: When was your next meeting after the resignation? Did the announcement change your plans?

Seewald: Our first meeting after the resignation took place in July 2013. This event had of course changed my list of questions. As I mentioned, the background for this project was that it was intended to gather information for a biography. Now propaganda from Ratzinger’s opponents had misleading versions of events dominating the media. They said, “Ratzinger was the wrong choice for pope, the best thing he did was resign.” That was nonsense! Last Testament shows that his papacy was anything but a failure, notwithstanding problems like Vatileaks, the Williamson affair, and the scant support from certain quarters of the Catholic establishment.

I believe that Benedict XVI was the collegial and prudent pope which the Second Vatican Council had wished for. With him, everyone knew where they stood. And that which he decreed, although perhaps uncomfortable, faithfully corresponded to the teachings of the Gospel. Moreover, he exercised his office with a unique dignity.  

CWR: The most recent book, as with each of the others, touches on everything from obscure biographical information to the most profound questions about life, faith, and the last things.

Seewald: Joseph Ratzinger is not a jovial, slap-on-the-back person. There are no cheap gimmicks with him. But at the same time he makes it easy to ask difficult questions unflinchingly, and he impresses you with his answers. And the beauty of his words only serves to deepen the clarity of his thinking even further. Anyone reading even just four or five pages of the book would be impressed with the humility with which the Pope Emeritus answers the questions. You can feel and sense his person almost as if he were there: his character, his thinking, his humility, his humor. 

CWR: I have been an avid reader of the writings of Joseph Ratzinger for years, including his memoirs and your interviews with him. I still learned a great deal about him from this book. Were there any specific new insights that you gained?

Seewald: He speaks with a remarkable openness, and neither glosses nor reworks his answers, as politicians like to do in order to present things differently or refine things. It remains a mystery to me, how he could deal with the demands of his stupendous responsibilities as pope in his old age, with his health problems, promulgating three encyclicals and writing his three-volume book on Jesus Christ.

In my opinion Joseph Ratzinger is one of the most misunderstood personalities of our time. With his contributions to the Council, the rediscovery of the ancient Church Fathers, the revivifying of doctrine, and the purification and consolidation of the Church, he was not only a force of renewal, but as a theologian on the Petrine chair, one of the most significant popes in history. As a theologian of the people, he has never forgotten that he comes from very simple circumstances, and has always defended the views of the simple faithful against the cold impositions of many university professors. He is the sort of character that simply won’t exist in the future—and can be considered overall, therefore, as the Doctor of the Church for the modern era.  

CWR: How many hours did you spend interviewing Pope Benedict for this book?

Seewald: Maybe 10 or 12. Because he is a very musical person, a poet, an artist, an encounter with him is always cheering. We laughed a lot together. One of his friends once said: “Ratzinger never complains. He is like Mozart—his problems never affect this work.”

The great drama of his life was perhaps centered on his ability to keep going when otherwise everything would have been lost. Above all, that requires resources of spiritual strength which, he believes, themselves depend on the cultural and intellectual quality of humanity. When human beings no longer revere God as holy, then nothing else can be sacred to them. And when people lose their spiritual potency, their intellectual potency soon follows.  

CWR: How long did you spend researching and preparing for the interview sessions?

Seewald: It’s hard to say, maybe two months. Because I‘ve been accompanying him as a journalist for more than 20 years, I could gather together a lot of information and then scrutinize what is right and wrong about the image we have of Joseph Ratzinger. We have here a biography spanning Germany of the 20th century, with all the peaks but also the troughs of a historical personality. According to the Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, Ratzinger is one of the most significant intellectuals of the contemporary world, whose bold reflections provide answers for the moral, intellectual, and cultural problems of our time. But above all he is an inspired Father of the Church, who leaves behind a body of writings which is almost inexhaustible. There is also an untold amount of material to deal with, which must be situated in relation to history in order for the actions and statements to be understood at all. The experiences of the aftermath of Nazi-dictatorship, after the atheistic tyrant and apocalyptic Second World War, are a case in point. No one would have dared to say, in 1945, that Christianity is a relic from the past, that we don’t need any longer. On the contrary, it was to be salvation for the future of humanity.

CWR: Do you expect to do any other work with the Pope Emeritus in the future? Or other books about him?

Seewald: I mentioned that I’m working on a biography of Benedict XVI. One gets a closer understanding of someone through personal proximity to them. You can then “read” someone better, so to speak. On the other hand, however, if you are writing on someone who is indeed a “co-worker in truth,” you must above all make sure you’re writing a truthful account, and this necessitates a degree of critical distance. But with Ratzinger, his life seems to be guided by some force of providence. “Why does everything to do with Ratzinger go wrong?” many people ask. But the real question should be, “Why is so much he does so right and good?” Ratzinger always goes for the whole perspective. He is preoccupied with the question of God, what God means for the human being, meaning how he enables the human being to find out who he is. To enter into the fulfillment of life, by turning to the Creator as a creature, to become an incarnation, such as is offered by the Gospel of Christ.

Other popes are characterized primarily by their pontificates. With Ratzinger there is a body of written work which is already great and significant even without his becoming pope. He is not far off being the most widely-read theological teacher worldwide, with editions of his books published in the millions. Above all, he has shown us that religions and science, faith and reason, are not opposites. And that reason is a guarantor for ensuring that religion that does not slip into false fantasies and violent fanaticism. Last but not least, he put in place initiatives which Pope Francis can now extend, with gratitude. 

CWR: How would you describe the influence Ratzinger/Benedict has had on you over the years?

Seewald: From the very beginning, I was impressed by his realism, his courage, and the strength of his spirit. Joseph Ratzinger sees his Church as a resistance movement against the seductive aberrations of the world, against the God-forsakenness of fundamentalist atheism and neo-paganism. Ratzinger is a pragmatist—without losing sight of what is big and great, the complete whole, even for a second. That is where his modern edge lies: the critical perspective, the desire to perceive the real nature of things. How is that possible? By not letting oneself be blinded or manipulated by certain fashions, but at the same time not be narrow-minded or stiff, but open to what must necessarily be changed. Then having the courage to do the things which need to be done.

Neither as a theologian nor as pope did Ratzinger put forward his own system of doctrine. He is a teacher for the whole Church, because he always goes to the center, to Jesus Christ. He has shown us Jesus once again, the whole Jesus. The image of Jesus has become tattered by certain theologies and media representations. No one other than Ratzinger had the authority and gifts to show that we can trust the Gospel, both spiritually and historically. I believe that Pope Benedict has made a decisive contribution against the dilution of the Gospel, and laid the foundations for the faith in the 21st century.

What always impressed me was the continuity of the life of Pope Benedict. The continuity in his teaching, but also in his attitude, being both critical while being formed by love for God and humanity. Perhaps the very fact that he is always slandered makes his testimony all the truer. At the end of his life, at any rate, he is at peace with himself and in the Lord—quite simply because he always performed his tasks with all the gifts that had been laid in his hands.

I consider Pope Benedict XVI to mark a turning-point, a link between two worlds, one who has built a bridge between the old world and the coming of the new—whatever it might bring. His most important sentiment is: “A society from which God is absent, destroys itself.”

About Paul Senz 30 Articles

Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.