For more than a quarter of a century, Peter Seewald (1954) has accompanied Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, the first pope emeritus in centuries.
His most recent book, Benedict XVI: A Life, which totals more than 1,000 pages in two volumes, is not just a biography (the English translation of the first part is shipping in the coming days).
It’s an encounter with the events of the Church and the history of the contemporary age: The Second Vatican Council, one of the longest pontificates in history with John Paul II, secularization, globalization and the unprecedented coexistence of two popes in the Vatican.
Ratzinger is a figure in the history of our time whose life reflects the events of the 20th and 21st centuries through his personal, theological, and ecclesial career.
Seewald has delved into his personality, into the dramatic vicissitudes of his life, and has arrived—through the reconstruction of events such as the Williamson affair and Vatileaks, in addition to his surprising renunciation of the pontificate—by painting a detailed picture of the 265th Successor of Peter.
In this exclusive interview for Aleteia, the journalist expresses his conviction that the pope emeritus has never become a shadow pope. On the contrary, he has always been careful not to hinder Francis’ actions. However, “Benedict has never taken a vow of silence,” he clarified.
It’s worth noting that the new book includes the most recent unpublished interview with Pope Benedict XVI since his retreat from the Vatican. The interview took place in the fall of 2018.
Aleteia: Here is a question that summarizes the many questions we receive from readers about the pope emeritus: What is the state of Benedict XVI’s physical, emotional and psychological health after suffering his facial rash (erysipelas), the experience of his brother’s death, and his physical limitations?
Seewald: Erysipelas was very painful. But since then, the Pope Emeritus has fully recovered and is back in shape, as far as possible for a physically frail 93-year-old. He celebrates the Holy Eucharist every day, meditates, reads, makes short trips in a wheelchair, and sends and receives mail.
And he has a sense of humor and confidence in the face of all the tribulations regarding the Church and the world he must hear about in the news every day.
Aleteia: Benedict XVI was the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years. As his biographer, do you consider it imperative to make known other merits of the doctrine and life of Pope Ratzinger so that history does not reduce his legacy to the moment of his resignation? What human biographical aspects of BXVI’s life and work would you highlight?
Seewald: Ratzinger’s opponents—”my non-friends,” he would say—never tire of repeating one of their favorite sayings: Benedict XVI was the wrong pope, and resigning was his greatest act. What nonsense! It was not without reason that my book became so long. There’s a lot to talk about. Very important things, very exciting and also very entertaining ones.
Ratzinger’s life is a biography of the century. Basically, Benedict is perhaps the only pope whose work was great and important even before his pontificate. He began as a young star who knew how to transmit Christian teaching with a new freshness, with the highest intelligence and, as a theologian of the people, at the same time in all its simplicity and beauty. Without Ratzinger’s contribution, the Second Vatican Council would never have opened things up as it did.
His books became the world’s best sellers and have confirmed or even brought faith to millions of people around the world. The result was countless priestly vocations. He was the first pope in history to present a revolutionary Christology. His declaration of zero tolerance and new regulations marked the beginning of a new era in the prosecution of and atonement for sexual abuse in the Church, although much more should have been done.
Probably the greatest importance of Benedict lies in his unwavering orthodoxy. He is willing to be disliked and to be attacked. In return, everyone knew that everything he did and said might be uncomfortable, but that it corresponded reliably to the teaching of the Gospel, the Council, and the Catholic tradition.
Aleteia: In your opinion, what was the most surprising answer Joseph Ratzinger gave you during his long interview sessions?
Seewald: Ratzinger is the most intelligent person I have ever met. And it’s always easy for him to surprise you. In truth, he has remained a modern thinker, although certainly not modern in the sense of a dilution of the faith.
I found a surprising and particularly beautiful response in our first interview book, The Salt of the Earth, from 1996. I asked him, “Your Eminence, how many roads are there to God?” He didn’t have to think twice and answered without a pause: “As many as there are people.”
Aleteia: Francis claims that Benedict XVI is like a grandfather or a family member to him. However, there are critical voices inside and outside the Church that call for a canonical reform to prevent a pope emeritus with his public life and his statements from acting as a counterweight to the ruling or active pontiff. Is Benedict XVI aware that everything he writes or says creates an inevitable counterweight or provokes disputes that reinforce those who do not like the Magisterium or the reforms of Pope Francis?
Seewald: Of course he is aware of this. He was already aware when it was not even clear who exactly would be his successor. Already with his declaration of renunciation he promised his absolute obedience. The pope is the pope. There must not be a shadow pope or even a parallel pope. Those days are over. But that does not mean that one agrees with everything the Supreme Shepherd of the Church says.
There has never been a situation like the present one, with one ruling pope and another one who has abdicated. But who knows? Maybe soon we will even have two old popes and then three men dressed in white. Benedict XVI has created a new tradition with everything he did, whether by his resignation, or by his place of residence.
He had announced that he would retire into silence. And he did. But that doesn’t mean he should give up his way of thinking or take a vow of silence. He has already given his successor one or two pieces of advice, very discreetly. And he is by his side praying for him every day.
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