Could you explain for us the summer gatherings that then Cardinal Ratzinger had with his former students?
In 1978 I think he was appointed archbishop of Munich and Freising. And he had about 50 or 60 students over the course of his career, which had not been that long at the time. But some of the students decided to ask him if we could continue meeting with him every year, and we formed what’s called the Schülerkreis, or the “student circle.”
Every year we would pick out a monastery and a topic that he would approve and then we’d invite one or two guest presenters, and we’d go for a weekend to a monastery. We’d have Mass together and he’d give a homily, and we’d have meals together. We’d have some seminars and recreation, a very warm, friendly community.
Let me just give you one anecdote from that. At one of these meetings, the Sunday Gospel was the parable of the 11th-hour workers. And Ratzinger gave the homily. He said in the parable, the people who worked in the heat of the sun all day were upset that the owner of the vineyard paid the last-hour workers the same as they had got.
But Ratzinger said it is we who have been blessed to be disciples all our lives. We should rejoice. We’ve been able to be with the Lord and have been working with him for the whole day and we should not be upset that those who come later also get the same reward. We should think about what we receive.
That really impressed me and every time I read that Gospel that comes to mind.
Did these summer gatherings with students change when he became pope?
We thought they would, but he said “no, no.” He didn’t want to give us up and so we continued.
Usually in the last week of August, we’d meet for a weekend and he would again meet with us. We’d have a seminar and discussion. Of course there were 50 or 60 of us graduate students, but previously only 20 or 30 would be at any one of these meetings. Once he became pope, everybody came. So it was quite an event.
Looking back during the last meeting with him before he resigned, did you see any indication that he might pursue such a bold move?
No. He resigned in February and our previous meeting was in August. But he did two long book-length interviews with the journalist Peter Seewald, both wonderful. One was called “Salt of the Earth” and one was called “God in the World.” In one of those, I forget which, Seewald asked him: “You know, Holy Father, could a pope resign?” And Benedict — Ratzinger — as always, would respond immediately, as always with very carefully constructed thoughts:
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“If a pope were ever to consider that his physical or psychological or spiritual capacities were no longer adequate for the task, he not only could resign, he must resign.”
As soon as I read that, I said to myself: “If he does not die suddenly, he will resign.”
You know, people can talk about “God’s Rottweiler” and this harsh person abusing power. Benedict did not want to be bishop, he did not want to be cardinal, he did not want to be pope.
The proof of it is that he resigned. He did not cling to power over people or authority over people. He thought that he could no longer adequately do what he was called to do by the Lord, and therefore he resigned.
From your time with him, what can you tell us about his spiritual life and his devotional life?
Well, he described his prayer, his love of Scripture, his love of the psalms, his love of the Fathers of the Church, and how he went about his prayers. He was very open about his spiritual life. But he also was a man of liturgical prayer.