book cover imageLast Testament
by Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald, translated by Jacob Phillips.
Bloomsbury Continuum, 2016.
Hardcover, 288 pages, $24.

Those who have a close affinity with Pope Benedict XVI often wait eagerly for news of the man who did so much to shape the post-Conciliar Church and, in several cases, their personal faith.

Peter Seewald’s book-length interview, Last Testament, goes a long way to please those who have been wanting something more than the occasional photo and even-rarer public appearances. In this book, the former Pontiff reflects on his life, his time in office, and his resignation.

Readers owe a debt of gratitude to Seewald, a distinguished German journalist and former editor of Der Spiegel. Seewald is not completely neutral; he credits his own return to the Catholic Church to a series of interviews conducted with the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Nor is this the first collaboration between Seewald and the Pope Emeritus; they already collaborated on three book-length interviews including Salt of the Earth (1996), God and the World (2002), and Light of the World (2010). His intimate portrait of Benedict XVI, published in book form in 2008, is an excellent companion to these four books.

Before delving into key periods of his life, Seewald queries the Pope Emeritus on his thought processes before his resignation. Ill health played an important part in this decision. After his trip to Cuba and Mexico in 2012, doctors advised the aging pontiff that he could no longer fly over the Atlantic. With the next World Youth Day scheduled for Rio de Janeiro in 2013, the Pope felt he had to make a drastic decision. When questioned whether the negative media coverage played any part, the former Pontiff is adamant: “it isn’t the judgement of journalists that matters, but the judgement of the loving God.”

The same journalists have, however, been keen to try and portray some rupture between the papacy of Benedict XVI and that of Francis. The Pope Emeritus is quick to quash such rumours: “there may be a different emphasis, of course, but no opposition.” The election of Jorge Bergoglio shows a church that is “flexible, dynamic, and open, and that … is developing from within.”

Joseph Ratzinger, the youngest of three siblings, was born in a humble Bavarian household. Anti-Nazi sentiment and opposition to anti-Semitism ran through the family. The Pope Emeritus recalls that his father would always purchase fabric for sewing from a Jewish retailer in Augsburg. When the Nazis confiscated this property, his father opted to take his business elsewhere since he would not “take up what one man has taken from another.”

The experience of Nazi Germany shaped the Ratzinger siblings. They experienced a Church that was constantly harassed and lived in the knowledge that its days were numbered in the event of a Nazi victory. The young Joseph took a decisive stand against the regime; he deserted the army and returned home. In 1946, Georg and Joseph Ratzinger began their theological studies in Freising.

The future Pope was influenced by the “Munich School” of theology, which was both ecumenical and biblically oriented, placingemphasis on Holy Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and the liturgy. After being ordained, Joseph Ratzinger soon became one of the most promising individuals in academia. The young priest-theologian was living in a period of profound political and theological renewal. He developed an interest in politics because it lives off philosophy; politics cannot be pragmatic since it must have a vision of the whole. Ratzinger expresses admiration towards Konrad Adenauer and attributes to him the long period of post-war peace.

Ratzinger was one of the periti of the Second Vatican Council, working alongside the Cardinal-Archbishop of Cologne, Josef Frings. In this role, he met with the leading theologians of the twentieth century, including Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Jean Daniélou. Initially, the young theologian was perceived to be “progressive,” but for Ratzinger the definition of progressivism changed over time: “At that time progressive did not mean that you were breaking out of the faith, but that you wanted to understand it better, and more accurately, how it lives from its origins.”

Reflecting on the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict tells Seewald that it is often misinterpreted. The bishops had the intention of deepening and renewing faith. They were working alongside journalists who had a separate agenda and who sought to arrive at their own conclusions. Many faithful began to question several fundamental tenets; even the liturgy became a matter of personal preference. The Holy Father concludes: “We handled things correctly, even if we certainly did not correctly assess the political consequences and the actual repercussions.”

Following his contributions to the Council, Ratzinger embarked on a productive academic life. He served as a professor in the distinguished universities of Münster, Tübingen, and Regensburg before being appointed Cardinal-Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977.

After the death of Pope Paul VI, the Cardinal-Archbishop went to Rome for the Papal Conclave of August 1978. It was during this conclave that Ratzinger first met Karol Wojtyla—then Cardinal-Archbishop of Krakow and later Pope John Paul II. His first impression of the Polish cardinal was that of a “thoughtful person with a significant philosophical formation.” In October 1978, following John Paul I’s untimely death, Wojtyla was elected Pope. Ratzinger reluctantly accepted the post of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the single condition of being allowed to continue to write and publish. At the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger spearheaded various initiatives including the compiling of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

There were some differences between the two; John Paul II was a man who thrived on encounters with people while Ratzinger is a man of silence. However, their contrasting temperaments complemented each other. When John Paul II died, Ratzinger was the Dean of the College of Cardinals. It was his task to preach at the Pontiff’s funeral.

It was also his duty to preach at the Missa Pro Eligendo Romano Pontefice, and Ratzinger denounced the dictatorship of relativism “that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” He entered the conclave hoping that his age would prevent him from being elected Pope. That was not to be. On 19 April 2005, Joseph Ratzinger was elected the 265th Bishop of Rome.

The Pope Emeritus reflects on his initial thoughts after being elected Pope: “in a pontificate which begins when one is seventy-eight years old, one should not strive for great, wide-ranging perspectives aimed at making changes which one cannot then see through oneself.” Rather, the Pope wanted to ensure that the faith endured. He spearheaded initiatives focussing on evangelization while attempting to reach out to some critics of Rome—including the Society of St Pius X.

He allowed the use of the Tridentine Mass and described this as an “inward reconciliation of the Church with itself.” Pope Benedict argues that there is only one Mass, but there are “two ways to represent it ritually” Notably, “it was important that something which was previously the most sacred thing in the Church to people should not suddenly be completely forbidden.” Seewald describes the short papacy of Benedict XVI as a “great retreat [that] the Church needed to buttress the interior castle and to strengthen her soul.”

As Supreme Pontiff, Benedict XVI showed the same openness to different liturgical expressions when propagating the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus which established the Personal Ordinariates for former Anglicans, allowing them to retain their liturgical traditions while being in full communion with Rome.

Seewald’s book gives the reader an excellent synthesis of the life of a great son of the Church. His book is insightful and accessible; profound and beautiful in its simplicity. He concludes his book by asking the Pope Emeritus some questions on his personal faith and the future of Christianity. His answers reveal a profound and convinced faith that remains grounded amidst the challenges of the age.

The concluding chapter of this excellent book may best sum up the true greatness of the man. The Pope Emeritus—the former professor, peritus, Archbishop, Prefect, Dean of the College of Cardinals, and Supreme Pontiff—remains a devout priest who looks out into the world and sees “traces of God everywhere.”  

André P. DeBattista is an independent researcher and columnist. He has worked on various research projects in the fields of political science, governance, and international relations. In 2013 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He tweets @APDeBattista.