Pope Benedict as a faithful innovator

by Father Michael Hickin


“Last Testament” by Pope Benedict XVI and Peter Seewald. Published by Bloomsbury Continuum. 288 pages.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has been blind in his left eye for many years. He names his favorite pieces from Bach and Mozart. He likes to think through thoughts reclining on a sofa, but never plays the night owl over his books. “I love French culture.” He finds that the ‘unrestrained stillness of the rural expanse’ really speaks to him. To write, what he needs most is silence, “then thoughts are able to ripen.” This interview, the fourth he has done with Peter Seewald, is plumb full of anecdotes.

Heading the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith for 25 years, Cardinal Ratzinger got pegged as the watchdog of orthodoxy. Reading Last Testament paints another picture, Benedict’s self-portrait as a faithful innovator.

It began with the atmosphere of his seminary in Bavaria. Nineteenth century piety was set aside in favor of a liturgical spirituality. Aquinas was side-lined in favor of Augustine. He says that after the War, there was a sense you could begin afresh, plunging into the adventure of thinking, advancing toward “new things.” He threw himself into a “vision for tomorrow,” embracing breakthroughs that would allow the ancient faith to ring true in contemporary ears.

His behind-the-scenes role at Vatican II helped tip the scales in favor of the “progressives,” his camp, at a crucial turning point regarding the Decree on Divine Revelation. With his mentor Henri de Lubac and others, he saw it as his mission to renew the faith by giving greater voice to its beginnings in Scripture and the Fathers. But then the defections began.

This is where the real drama of Joseph Ratzinger’s life begins. He pushed for real progress, but not at the expense of breaking with Church authorities. He concedes some naïveté for not having foreseen the political ramifications of “a renewal of the whole.” Fact is he refused to align his efforts with those who would bad mouth the Pope or the Council.

Ratzinger would come to stand for a beautiful paradox, akin to the organic farmer who uses the most up-to-date equipment. He labored to bring together the cultivation of a fresh language for Christian theology with a rootedness in the origins of Christian Faith. This is what he calls continuity.

Elected the Successor of Peter at age 78, Pope Benedict did not see it as his task to carry out any great reforms. He hadn’t the energy for that. Nevertheless, he admits “new things given to me” while writing his 3-volume Jesus of Nazareth. He calls the three World Youth Days over which he presided “real turning points in my life.” They made him aware of a new generation sprouting. He rejoices to see in these young people and their movements a fresh face for the Church.

When asked if he was a bridge between an old era and a new one, he hesitates. “I don’t belong to the old world anymore, but the new world isn’t really here yet.”

The theme of Benedict’s witness to continuity through renewal is nowhere more evident than in his resignation and embrace of Pope Francis. The Church is not frozen in old patterns, but remains “flexible, dynamic, open.” He could have said this about Vatican II or his own writings, but he says this about his successor, Bergoglio, whose election genuinely shocked him. He had no inkling who his successor would be. As different as Francis is in style, Benedict approvingly recognizes how the new Pope’s temperament serves the Church well. He praises Francis’ courage to expose problems and pursue solutions. Continuity continues, and Pope Emeritus Benedict is content.

Last Testament should set the record straight. For him there is no sense of disruption. For anyone tempted to think otherwise, they are welcome to imbibe Benedict’s lifelong brew, generously served up throughout this interview, of refreshing continuity.