Journalist Peter Seewald: Pope Benedict is “one of the most misunderstood personalities of our time” | Paul Senz | CWR
The German journalist reflects on his latest book-length interview with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whom he considers among history’s most significant popes.
It is well-known that Pope Francis regularly grants interviews to various media outlets, and has done so since the earliest days of his papacy. As a result, it seems as if each successive interview is received with less fanfare, and the words of the Holy Father are watched with breath a little less bated.
His predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, was never one to give interviews so frequently. However, over the last 25 years, he has granted four book-length interviews to German journalist Peter Seewald—Salt of the Earth, God and the World, Light of the World, and now Last Testament: In His Own Words (Bloomsbury, 2016). This most recent (and perhaps final) installment in the series of interviews, Last Testament contains many insights into the life and personality of Joseph Ratzinger.
The interviewer, Peter Seewald, brings his own intriguing personal story to these interviews. Raised Catholic, he left the practice of the Faith in his youth and became an ardent communist. It was the time he spent interviewing then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that famously brought Seewald back home to the Church. Their professional relationship developed into a close friendship, and this can be seen in the pages of this latest book.
The interview sessions comprising Last Testament began before Benedict’s announcement of his resignation, and continued shortly thereafter. As a result, these interviews—which initially were conceived as research for Seewald’s biography of Benedict—became a venue for Benedict to give an unfiltered account of his papacy, of how he views its successes and failings, as well as one more exploration into his analysis of the blessings and problems of today’s world, and a reflection on his life up to this point.
Mr. Seewald spoke with CWR by email in December 2016. His responses were translated by the translator of Last Testament, Jacob Phillips.
German journalist Peter Seewald holds a copy of his book-length interview with Pope Benedict XVI "Light of the World" at a press conference at the Vatican Nov. 23, 2010. (CNS photo /Piotr Spalek, Catholic Press Photo)
CWR: You were born in Germany to a Catholic family. Can you tell us a little bit about your faith journey up to this point?
Peter Seewald: During the student rebellions of 1968 I began to engage with politics. Christianity seemed something of a relic from the past then. I felt that its mixture of power and madness had to be overcome in order finally to build a genuinely progressive society. So one day I withdrew myself from the Church. I felt liberated, and I fought for the ideas of Marx and Lenin. Now, with the passage of time, I’ve left communism behind me. We did not know then what atrocities and millions of victims Maoism left behind in China (or rather, we did not want to know), but it was clear to me that these ideological systems cannot be reconciled with human dignity.
As a journalist who followed developments in society closely, I could now see that with the decline of Christianity in the West, the basic level of our culture, indeed of civilization, completely sank away with it. It was obvious that there was a link between forsaking the conviction that the world is created and belongs to a created order—an eclipse of God—and the danger of a new barbarism. When I had the opportunity of conducting a long interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1992, I was fascinated by the fact that from the faith, knowledge, and tradition of the Catholic Church there are answers that correspond to the problems of our time. Yes, the message the faith brings with it is an offer that one cannot fundamentally dismiss out of hand.
CWR: This is the fourth book-length interview you have done with Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict. Whose idea was it to do one more? Did Benedict go into this with the intention of giving his “final word” on his life and papacy, as far as you know?