There is probably no Catholic churchman alive today who has sat down for interviews as often throughout his life as has Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. That’s nothing short of ironic, considering he was often depicted by the media as a shy and retiring individual more interested in the inner workings of the church than in being on center stage like his predecessor St. John Paul II or his successor Pope Francis.
But Benedict, first as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and in his role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and then as Holy Father, sat down periodically for interviews with journalists, most often with the German reporter Peter Seewald. Their conversations, beginning in the mid-1980s, became book-length explorations of a host of controversial subjects facing the church and society in the years leading up to the millennium and then afterward. To read any of these book-length interviews, captured under titles such as The Ratzinger Report (1985), Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium (1997), Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times (2010), or to simply skim them from topic to topic, is to be engaged in a very personal way with one of the church’s leading thinkers and holy leaders.
This month, the last of those interviews is being published under the title Last Testament: In His Own Words (Bloomsbury Continuum). From the title and press announcements about the book, these will be Benedict’s final public words. What a shame.
Since his stunning retirement from the papacy in 2013 – the first time a pope has retired in more than 600 years – Benedict has lived a very private life, monastic almost at his request, with only a few public appearances at the invitation of Francis. They were seated together in the Vatican Gardens in 2013 for the unveiling of a statue of Saint Michael the Archangel. They have been shown praying together in Benedict’s apartment in Vatican City and perhaps, most dramatically, sharing a fraternal embrace – one pope to another! – at the canonization of two of their brother popes, John XXIII and John Paul II in 2014, surely a sight that won’t be repeated again in our lifetimes.
With the publication of Last Testament, we will have no more insights like these: “Man is clearly in danger, and he is endangering both himself and the world; we could even say we have scientific evidence of this. Man can be saved only when moral energies gather strength in his heart; energies that can come only from the encounter with God; energies of resistance. We therefore need him, the Other, who helps us be what we ourselves cannot be; and we need Christ, who gathers us into a communion that we call the Church” (Light of the World).
Those words are certainly not a snarling sermon, nor a dense theological argument, nor a stern, wagging finger from a man critics nastily and snidely dismissed as “God’s Rottweiler.” They are the words of a father … a true holy father. And they will be missed.