How does one begin to enter into such a mind as that of Joseph Ratzinger? How does one enter – more importantly – into such a spirituality, one at the same time so simple and yet so profound?
These are large questions: the answer to them has been made accessible by the journalist Peter Seewald, who over the years has developed an impressively perceptive relationship with the once future, and now Emeritus, Pope Benedict, and who has published yet another of his book-length interviews under the title Last Testament: In His Own Words. In it, we are brought into the presence of this modest (Benedict’s own word: he never claims the virtue of humility), wonderfully clear-minded and self-evidently (I would have thought) holy, servant of God.
Two sections of the book seemed to me especially fascinating: the conversation about the origins and development of his relationship with Pope John Paul II (the foundation – increasingly reluctantly accepted by Cardinal Ratzinger himself – of the rest of his life); and the account that emerges earlier of his attitude, as a young academic, towards the Second Vatican Council, an attitude at first enthusiastic but then increasingly critical of the direction the whole juggernaut was taking.
His excitement at what was unfolding in Rome in the early years is vividly and engagingly remembered. He was “a real fan” (Seewald’s expression, amusedly accepted by Benedict) of Pope John XXIII. He remembers it as he encountered it at the time, this extraordinary world that was assembling before his eyes: “Simply the universality of Catholics, the diverse polyphony, as people from all parts of the world encounter each other, as everybody is united in the same episcopate, can speak with each other, and find a way forward with each other. Then the encounters with great figures, to see Lubac once, even to speak with him, Daniélou, Congar, all the greats, that’s extraordinarily exciting for me…”
Not only to see them, but to know them. Perhaps the greatest of them all was Henri de Lubac, considered then to be a progressive (as indeed was the young Ratzinger) but who was to become one of the great bastions on which the resistance to the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” was built.
As Benedict explains, “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. I was of the opinion then that that was what we all wanted. Famous progressives like Lubac, Daniélou, etc thought likewise. The change of mood was indeed already noticeable by the second year of the Council, but it only began to loom clearly with the passing of the years.”
The “famous progressives” were not, for the young professor, simply stars. It was their spiritual depth and their humility that he found so impressive. Here he is on Lubac, clearly a major influence: “It was magnificent for me now to see him myself. He was very simple, very humble and very kind. It immediately felt as if we were old friends, despite there being a huge age gap between us, and a clear-cut difference in our achievements, the achievements of life. He was always very friendly and genuinely fraternal… He actually didn’t want to let you feel his greatness, somehow. He was very simple and unimaginably hardworking…”
And reminiscent, one immediately feels, of Benedict himself, as Seewald remarks: “He definitely bore a certain resemblance to …”, only to be cut off by a very definite “No” from Benedict himself.
Ratzinger’s great bestseller, his Introduction to Christianity, written when he was professor of theology at Tübingen, impressed a certain little-known Polish archbishop, Karol Wojtyła, and it is worth asking why this should have been so; of that more presently. The book was written, it is curious to remember now, at a time when he was a friend and colleague of Hans Küng, who had recommended him for his post.
Seewald amusingly evokes the showy Küng roaring up the hill at Tübingen in his Alfa Romeo, followed modestly by Professor Ratzinger on an ancient, wobbly bicycle. Küng later viciously turned on Ratzinger, and he is indeed the only individual about whom Benedict speaks with barely disguised distaste. In Tübingen, he says, “I had made the naïve assessment that Küng had a big mouth and said impudent things, but fundamentally wanted to be a Catholic theologian … I had not foreseen that he would then go on to break ranks [so] repeatedly.”
All the time, he was slowly, and in time reluctantly, moving towards the day when he had to leave forever his beloved Bavaria to begin his great ministry as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a ministry built on the rock of the pontificate of John Paul. And as with Lubac, it is clear that his unwavering loyalty to his great predecessor was animated by his perception of John Paul’s closeness to God.
He once said that he got to know John Paul more by concelebrating the Holy Mass with him than by analysing his books: “If you concelebrated with him, you felt the inward proximity to the Lord, the depth of faith which he would then plunge into, and you really experienced him as a man who believes, who prays, and who is indeed marked by the Spirit.”
They had, Benedict observes, very different personalities: “He was a man who needed companionship, needed life, activity, needed encounters. I, however, needed silence more … But precisely because we were very different, we complemented each other well.”
What was it that John Paul had spotted in the young Prof Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, which so marked him out as someone to get to know in the proceedings surrounding Pope Paul VI’s death, and then that of Pope John Paul I and at the two conclaves which followed – and which in the end brought him reluctantly to Rome in 1982 to take on the CDF?
I wonder if it was the combination of clarity, simplicity and spiritual depth with which Ratzinger expounded the problem – and the vital necessity – of belief in unseen realities even in a materialist age? For here, clearly, is the basis of Ratzinger’s long and courageous resistance to the attempted secularisation of the Church:
Man’s natural inclination draws him to the visible, to what he can take in his hand and hold as his own. He has to turn around inwardly in order to see how badly he is neglecting his own interests by letting himself be drawn along in this way by his natural inclination. He must turn around to recognise how blind he is if he trusts only to what he sees with his eyes. Without this change of direction, without his resistance to the natural inclination, there can be no belief. Indeed belief is the conversion in which man discovers that he is following an illusion if he devotes himself only to the tangible. [My emphasis.] This is at the same time the fundamental reason why belief is not demonstrable: it is an about-turn; only he who turns about is receptive to it; and because our inclination does not cease to point us in another direction, it remains a turn that is new every day; only in a lifelong conversion can we become aware what it means to say “I believe.”
Clarity, simplicity, a deep centredness on God: all this we get to know in the presence of Joseph Ratzinger. Last Testament is Seewald’s title, not Benedict’s. There could be more to come: may it be so.
William Oddie is a writer and broadcaster. He edited the Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004