Perhaps it is the legacy of his early years as a professor, but Pope Benedict XVI seems to relish the chance to speak spontaneously and to take questions from a crowd.
In the five short years of his pontificate, he has engaged in an unusual number of public question and answer sessions — with bishops, priests, seminarians, even young children; and, of course, journalists.
His comfort with the “Q & A” format predates his pontificate. As head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he took part in several book-length interviews — beginning with his now famous conversation with Italian journalist, Vittorio Messori, published in 1985 as “The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church.”
His new interview book, “Light of the World,” is his third with the German journalist Peter Seewald.
Although not officially released until Nov. 23, the book is already the talk of the world. That follows the odd decision by the Vatican newspaper to violate the embargo on the book’s release and publish fragments of the Pope’s remarks on the controversial subject of condoms and the worldwide fight against AIDS.
But there is far more to this 219-page book than grist for scandal-mongers and controversialists.
It is true that the Pope is forthright and frank in responding to questions ranging from ecumenism to global warming. And he does not duck tough questions on his handling of controversies and scandals that have arisen in the Church under his watch.
He also speaks candidly and offers an unprecedented personal glimpse into his papacy.
At 83, the job can make him weary, he admits, and he makes a special effort to organize his time well and to make sure that he gets enough rest and time for prayer.
And he thanks God that he is in excellent health — because this Pope does not like to exercise.
Asked whether he ever uses the exercise bicycle given to him by his former physician, Pope Benedict responds enthusiastically: “No. I don’t get to it at all — and don’t need it at the moment, thank God.”
“Light of the World” presents the Pope as one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals, a man who has thought deeply about the modern world, with all its problems and its promises.
At the root of the problems in the world today is what he calls “the question about God.”
“For many people today, practical atheism is the normal rule of life,” Pope Benedict says. “Maybe there is something or someone, they think, who once set the world in motion eons ago, but he does not matter to us at all. If this attitude becomes a general existential position, then freedom no longer has any standards, then everything is possible and permissible.”
As he sees it, God has been displaced in a society that now puts all its confidence in the capacities of human reason and science and technology. “Today man thinks that he himself can do everything that he once awaited from God alone,” he states.
The Pope calls for a “major examination of conscience” of modern assumptions about the uses of knowledge, power, and freedom, and about the meaning of progress.
“This is the question: What is good? Where should knowledge lead power? …” he asks. “Is it progress if I can destroy? Is it progress if I myself can make, select, and dispose of human beings?”
He rejects what he calls a “fundamental concept of the modern era: freedom, which is understood as the freedom to do anything.” This understanding of freedom leads to the dangerous belief that “whatever one can do, one must also be allowed to do,” he says.
He also warns of the rise of a “new intolerance” in secular society that rejects traditional religious symbols and teachings as incompatible with modern freedoms. He notes that Christians and Church institutions are increasingly being pushed to the margins of society.
“When, for example, in the name of non-discrimination, people try to force the Catholic Church to change her position on homosexuality or the ordination of women, then that means that she is no longer allowed to live out her own identity … In the name of tolerance, tolerance is being abolished; this is the real threat we face.”
In the face of growing secularization, Pope Benedict poses hard questions for Catholics.
“To what extent do people belong to the Church in the first place?” he asks. “On the one hand, they want to belong to her and do not want to lose this foundation. On the other hand, they are of course also shaped and formed interiorly by the modern way of thinking.”
The Pope sees believers today as afflicted by “a sort of schizophrenia, a divided existence.” Faith in God is reduced to “a sort of archaic stratum” that has less and less meaning in a society where people are encouraged to live as if God is not relevant.
Benedict XVI also questions the indifference of many Christians to the social and political implications of their faith.
“Really,” he says, “one often wonders how it happens that Christians who personally are believers do not have the strength to put their faith into action in a way that is politically effective.”
Pope Benedict reserves his most withering criticisms for some aspects of the institutional Church.
“The bureaucracy is spent and tired,” he says of some Church institutions in Europe and the West.
Of some Catholics who work for the Church, he adds: “It is sad that there are what you might call professional Catholics who make a living on their Catholicism, but in whom the spring of faith flows only faintly, in a few scattered drops.”
Yet the Pope remains bullish on the Church. He stresses the growth in the number of priests and seminarians worldwide. And he sees new vitality in the various movements in the Church, especially among the young, and especially outside of Europe.
“Christianity is perhaps acquiring another face and, also, another cultural form,” he says. “It does not hold the command post in world opinion; others rule there. But it is a vital force without which even the other things would not continue. … Thanks to what I myself am able to see and experience, I am quite optimistic that Christianity is on the verge of a new dynamic.”
He calls for a “new evangelization” and urges the Church to once more propose the truth about Jesus Christ to the world.
“Above all else we must try to make sure that people do not lose sight of God,” he says.
It is not enough for people to believe in God. They must be introduced to the God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ, a personal God — “a God who knows us, speaks to us, and approaches us — and who is then our judge also,” Pope Benedict says.
The Church’s preaching remains too “one-sided … largely directed to the creation of a better world,” according to the Pope. “Hardly anyone talks any more about the other, truly better world. … Our task is to open up this horizon, to broaden it, and to turn our gaze toward the ultimate.”
The Pope answers many complex questions in “Light of the World.” But perhaps his most moving answer comes in response to the simplest of the questions put to him: “What does Jesus want from us?”
Pope Benedict responds: “He wants us to believe him. To let ourselves be led by him. To live with him. And so to become more and more like him and, thus, to live rightly.”
The Pope Benedict XVI who reveals himself in the pages of this book is a man of prayer and humility.
He confesses that in his personal prayer he invokes the saints often: “I am friends with Augustine, with Bonaventure, with Thomas Aquinas.”
And this book again reveals how much his vision of the world has been shaped by St. Augustine’s meditations on original sin in his masterwork, “The City of God.”
He says: “St. Augustine said: World history is a battle between two forms of love. Love of self — to the point of destroying the world. And love of others — to the point of renouncing oneself. This battle, which could always be seen, is in progress now, too.”
Of his own place in this epic battle between the “two loves,” Pope Benedict describes his pontificate as the humble continuation of his predecessor’s. “I really am a debtor,” he concludes, “a modest figure who is trying to continue what John Paul II accomplished as a giant.”