CNA recently spoke exclusively with German journalist Peter Seewald, author of the new book-length interview with Pope Benedict XVI.
Last summer, Seewald interviewed the Pope over a period of several days at Castel Gandolfo. The conversations were compiled in his new book, "Light of the Word: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times."
Seewald previously published two books on then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, "The Salt of the Earth," and "God and the World."
CNA's edited interview with Seewald is below:
CNA: Do you consider yourself a friend of Pope Benedict XVI?
Peter Seewald: I should say that we do not have a friendship. I am a journalist, and before Joseph Ratzinger became Pope we crossed paths in different places, and because of his age he could be my father. I met him as a journalist when my editors charged me with writing his biographical sketch and in doing so I came face to face with his work, his writings and his actions.
I was quite surprised to learn that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was not like how he had been portrayed and how I had imagined him to be, but rather that he was someone very apt at analyzing society, who understood very well today’s situation and was capable of profound analysis.
What are the most common misunderstandings about the Pope in the international media?
The first misunderstanding is the idea that Joseph Ratzinger is a Pope who is conservative, harsh, too strict, a man who likes power. None of these characteristics truly reflect the personality of Joseph Ratzinger, a man who, one could say, is one of the greatest minds of the Catholic Church; someone with a great heart and—necessarily so—a fighter by nature, someone who remains standing amidst the storms, someone who is not afraid.
I think it is important to say that one of his goals is to share the Gospel. He is someone who does not get stuck in the past or in the present. He is someone who is very much a part of our times, he understands development, he is always well informed, he views things clearly from the perspective of the Church, he understands all of the changes in society and is always concerned about the changes of modernity. Basing himself on the Gospel, the Fathers of the Church, tradition, he always strives to view things critically, he asks questions in order to understand, especially in the framework of these new times.
Joseph Ratzinger is no reactionary. I have always considered him a very modern man, someone who is always accessible, who promotes and seeks dialogue, who is always concerned with understanding other ways of thinking, including those of agnostics, atheists and those of other tendencies. He is someone interested in knowing them and understanding them well as part of our intellectual foundation and as part of our thinking.
If you asked me to describe Joseph Ratzinger I would say he is an upright man and by far one of the greatest figures of our time. I think he is man with a great heart and at the same time, as far as his personality goes, one could say he is an educator, a man of great love. He is a very jovial person, although perhaps he does not show it out of timidity. Moreover, he is man who is always willing to listen, because he is not only a great thinker, he is also a great spiritual teacher.
What are the main characteristics of this Pope that go most unnoticed?
In general there is little discussion about the fact that Pope Benedict XVI is a great educator. That is one of his great qualities. He understands the Gospel very clearly, he always finds new facets and discovers in them ways to deal with secularism and opportunities to discover the position of the Church in these times.
His strong traits as an educator, as a great thinker, and as someone who listens not only to the Catholic world, but to all Christianity is something important that the media needs to see and understand.
I think this is something that is not common, but it is important to point out in this time of crisis in modern society. I say that it is a gift. In a world that is often blind, it is important to have somebody with this unbreakable attitude of openness. I think he will be much better appreciated in the future.
Many in the media have portrayed Benedict XVI as somebody who neither as archbishop, or prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or as Pope has never done enough to prevent the sexual abuse of children. Is this a fair judgment?
Such a stance comes from writers who want these terrible actions to have negative repercussions for the Pope. It has even been said that when he was Archbishop of Munich, a sexual abuse case came before him, and Joseph Ratzinger made a mistake and eventually did nothing.
Ever since his time in Munich, there was no chance that Archbishop Ratzinger would ignore this issue. He has had a proper attitude, and as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he quickly became concerned about this issue. He immediately made the necessary changes and imposed sanctions for these errors.
People said that he let these errors get out of hand, however he has always condemned these actions and as Pope he has sought out the victims. In October of 2006 he met with a bishop from Ireland and told him the truth needed to be found out, that whatever was necessary to keep these unacceptable situations from happening again had to be done.
An important point is that the first thing that needs to happen is for the victim to be helped and to find healing. These things must not be kept hushed, and the guilty must not go unpunished. Ratzinger, as Archbishop of Munich, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as Pope, has always acted uprightly in response to these errors, even though in reality some in the media have not seen it this way and have taken a stance against him.
It is clear that the Vatican’s efforts to communicate with the secular media in recent times have not been very successful. Many papal actions and decisions have not been accurately conveyed and the Holy Father has often been exposed to harsh criticism by the media. What happened in Regensburg with the Muslims, the case of Lefebvrist bishop Williamson, the distorting of the Pope’s statements on AIDS during his trip to Africa are still fresh in our memory. Does this Pope need better PR advice?
My only response can be yes. It is obvious that in this respect there is much to be done and much to learn from the mishaps. The media needs to receive information in advance so that errors about the Pope are not published. Benedict XVI himself has criticized this situation, and in this new book he mentions that this obviously affects the work that has been carried out.
This is a comprehensive effort because the Pope does many things in the world, but he needs to be informed about certain situations. For example, if there is a video that they know is going to be aired, or he should be notified when certain reports are going to be published. I think that in this respect there is much room for improvement.
What issues do you directly address with the Pope in the book "Light of the World?"
The book in general deals with the crisis in the Church, with his pontificate, as well as with the dramatic problems of society. It also addresses the sexual abuse scandal, how this pontificate is directly confronting it and what this will lead to. It addresses how reform in the Church will take place, what the Church’s stance is towards Islam and how this crisis is affecting us today.
The question lies in whether the crisis of our times is something that we have not seen throughout the Church’s history. Even within the Church there are some who will not be pleased that the Pope is so open, but they will be astonished at his prophetic words in this book.