By Gwénola de Coutard
Translated by Julie Rattey
Peter Seewald, a German journalist, returned to the Catholic Church 15 years ago after writing his first book-interview with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth, published in 1997. Seewald is the author of two other works with the pope: God and the World, released in 2001, and the current Light of the World.
You’re a journalist, and you’ve known Joseph Ratzinger for close to 20 years. Who is he to you?
When my newspaper (the German weekly, Süddeutsche Zeitung) asked me to do a profile on him in the mid-‘90s, Cardinal Ratzinger, former archbishop of Munich and Freising, was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was one of the most criticized men of the Church in Germany, saddled with the nickname “Panzerkardinal” in all the papers (see Footnote 1). But on examining his writings, and on meeting him in person, I discovered a man who was very unpretentious, a bit timid, whose thoughts very quickly fascinated me.
Today, after three book-interviews, I couldn’t say that we’re friends. Our characters are very different and we are not the same age. But I like him very much. Our Bavarian Catholic background brings us together. That has a certain danger, though: He gets us talking in our own regional language and then, afterwards, I have to retranslate everything! He’s not a jovial man, but he has a subtle humor, and he is always ready to help. This summer, for example, he agreed right away to put a small note on a postcard that I was sending to a loved one.
To prepare Light of the World, you interviewed Benedict XVI at the end of July at Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence. To your eyes, has he changed since becoming pope?
He seemed a little tired. That’s related, I believe, to his advanced age, 83, but especially to the weight of his position. Especially since he suffered a lot this year from the crises that shook the Church. But he’s a strong man who recovers surprisingly quickly, no doubt thanks to the discipline he applies to his work.
Besides that, only his environment has changed. As usual, it’s I who chose the topics of our conversations. I tried to ask him questions that public opinion, and not only the Church, would like him to address. That’s why we tackled not only the pedophilia scandals and the Williamson affair (see Footnote 2), but also the recurring themes of the welcoming of homosexuals in the Church, women’s ordination…. Personally, I think that these problems are marginal for the Church compared to the tragedy of the loss of faith among its members and the decline in the practice of the faith, but they make up a part of the expectations of the general public. He didn’t reject any of my questions. Joseph Ratzinger, having become pope, has kept the same humility, and the same gentleness.
Did he surprise you at times in his responses?
Yes, in his openness regarding Islam, notably when he declared himself against a general ban on wearing the burka. (He also surprised me) on sexual morality and condoms (see Footnote 3). He is not reinventing the views of the Church, but giving those views a new clarity that, I believe, is a great help to everyone.
At the time of Salt of the Earth, your first book-interview with Joseph Ratzinger, had you already foreseen meeting again to write Light of the World?
Not exactly. Light of the World is an old idea — it came about at the same time as Salt of the Earth — but at the time I imagined doing the book with John Paul II. Due to his illness, that wasn’t possible. I therefore saved the title for a work with his successor, without knowing that it would be this same Joseph Ratzinger.
What are your hopes for this work?
That it takes stock of the five years of Benedict XVI’s pontificate and gives him the chance to make himself understood. The interview format seemed to me particularly suited to this. Although his speech is always clear, it’s more accessible this way. To make the pope readable for everyone, even those who know nothing about theology, is my goal and, I believe, my talent.
What did you take away from this meeting?
To interview the pope is a very powerful experience, because I am convinced that he is one of the greatest thinkers of our time. And as a believer, it touched me very much, of course. In listening to him, I consider how the Church can provide answers to the questions of the day, whether they’re ecological, social…. As tragic as the situation of the world may be, we Christians have a reason to hope. This is a feeling I had since my first meeting with the great spiritual person who is Joseph Ratzinger. Today, after having formerly rejected the Church and spent time as a Communist, I’m finding once again — in the Gospels — the ideals of my youth. Christianity is not reactionary; it is revolutionary. That’s what we need to rediscover.
Reprinted with permission from the French weekly, Pèlerin magazine (pelerin.info), published by Bayard, also publisher of Catholic Digest. Gwénola de Coutard is a religion reporter for Pèlerin. Julie Rattey [firstname.lastname@example.org], translator, is the managing editor of Catholic Digest.
Footnote 1: Catholic Digest editor’s note: The word “panzer” refers to the German battle tank divisions in World War II, and would therefore be a commentary on Ratzinger’s toughness.
Footnote 2: Catholic Digest editor’s note: In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI agreed to lift the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, allegedly unaware that he denies the Holocaust. When Williamson’s stance became more publicized, the Vatican told Williamson he must recant his denial of the Holocaust before being readmitted into the Church.
Footnote 3: Catholic Digest editor’s note: To read the relevant excerpt from the book and accompanying commentary, visit ignatius.com/promotions/light-of-the-world.
Read Light of the World
Peter Seewald’s most recent book-interview with Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World, is available from Ignatius Press. For more information visit ignatius.com/promotions/light-of-the-world. For more Ignatius products, visit ignatius.com or call 800-651-1531.