Friday, 5 May 2017

Pope Benedict - Last Testament with Peter Seewald

I have just finished reading this book which contains Pope Benedict's final interview with Peter Seewald.

It covers some territory partially discussed in the several previous volumes in what has come to be a biography-by-interview series.  Unlike Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict's magisterial biblical exegesis and christological masterpiece, this translation from the German (in which both he and Seewald write) has some phrases that sound a bit awkward to the English-speaker. The use of the pronoun "one" is a bit formal but in the case of a Pope, more appropriate that the more formal regal "we."

All the topical questions are asked.  With remarkable candour and humility, the aged Benedict emerges as a still astute observer of the world in which "the good God" seeks to communicate a message of love amidst what many see as the ruins of Christian culture in Europe after a century in which humanity very nearly destroyed itself.  

There is considerable early biographical background in this book in which the Ratzinger family emerges as profoundly Catholic, opposed to the horror of Nazism and deeply devoted to one another.  Joseph Ratzinger's father was particularly opposed to the rising Nazi tide. The family suffered for this opposition but was largely unscathed in terms of physical harm.  

Both parents were raised and lived a traditional life in the heart of Catholic Bavaria. They encouraged both sons in pursuit of vocations to the priesthood. Their sister, Maria, remained quietly devoted to her brothers and lived with Joseph over many years, including in Rome, until her death in 1991.

A shy and often solitary figure to the minds of many, Joseph Ratzinger emerges as a first rate theologian, at first allied with the more liberal wing of German Catholic scholarship.  He had, for example, sharp disagreements with Paul Hacker, historian and critic of the Second Vatican Council.  Joseph's fascination with the Jewish theologian and mystic Martin Buber is also explored. 

An interesting influence upon the young theologian was Heinrich Schlier, a Protestant opponent of the Hitler regime and one-time disciple of Rudolph Bultman. Schlier later (in 1954) became a famous convert to Catholicism. Ratzinger says that Schlier was "a uniquely big influence on me."  

This influence was continued in the ongoing dialogue Prof Ratzinger had with Protestants. Along with the influence of the writings of the Anglican convert, John Henry Newman and engagement with Lutheran scholarship, as Cardinal Ratzinger and then as Pope Benedict XVI, he was able to bring to fruition the profound action for Christian unity, the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. The Ordinariates which have developed from this work are seen by many to mark the first formal healing of the Reformation breach. Thousands of Anglicans and other Protestants have been welcomed into the full communion of the Catholic Church through the outreach and ministry of the Ordinatiates.

Later, Cardinal Ratzinger became a formidable opponent in many debates with such notables as Hans Kung after Vatican II and what Prof. Ratzinger considered misinterpretations and misapplications of the Documents of Vatican II.  As an admirer and colleague of von Balthasar, Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, amongst others, the book describes his profound christology which shaped his teaching about the nature of the Church and her mission.  

The various challenges that Benedict faced as pope including the clergy sex abuse scandal are explored in a series of challenging questions.  What never wavers in his response is his profound thankfulness for the guiding presence of "the good God" whom Benedict perceives through nature, society and the movement of history despite the darkness of fallen human nature.

This book adds to what we know of one of the most profound and under-rated thinkers of the past century and one who has done so much to shape the mission of the Church in the twenty-first century.  

He concludes with a message about the guiding presence of God which has sustained him: "God is not, let's say, a ruling power, a distant force; rather he is love and he loves me - and, as such, life should be guided by him, by this power called love."

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