THIS is autobiography by interview. Peter Seewald takes Pope Benedict gently through his life and career, from growing up in Nazi Germany to ordination and his career as one of the bright young theologians who laid the foundations for the Second Vatican Council.
The story continues with his appointment as a bishop (which is how many German theologians end up), culminating in his not only becoming a cardinal, but being elected to succeed Pope John Paul II, whose right-hand man he had been.
Seewald does not probe into Benedict XVI’s reasons for resignation and breaking with the long tradition of popes’ dying in office, but I can’t be the only one to assume that his experience of the final years of Karol Wojtyla’s papacy must have played a considerable part in his decision.
I could also have done with a little more about how the Ratzinger family coped with life under Nazi rule, when, in his words, the Church was harassed rather than persecuted: a very common response was what the Germans called “internal emigration”, and Ratzinger’s father’s position as a police officer must have made life more than a little complicated for his household.
Nor does the book offer a comprehensive account of Ratzinger’s career: there is nothing, for example, about the embarrassing situation that arose in 1988 when the Vatican’s efforts to improve relations with the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who had been unable to come to terms with the work of the Second Vatican Council (and, indeed, had been unable to come to terms with the French Revolution), coincided with revelations about the Holocaust-denying stance of the Lefebvrist bishop Richard Williamson. The impression was given that the Vatican just didn’t know what was going on: a classic example of the Pope badly advised.
There are some minor inaccuracies: while Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope since Adrian VI, the latter was Dutch rather than German (as stated on page 256), elected in 1522; and Benedict is not “the first Pope for a thousand years to resign”, but the third. The first was the ill-fated Celestine V in 1294; and Gregory XII resigned in 1415 to bring the Avignon schism to an end.
The volume is, however, a very useful companion to, but not a substitute for, a biography of Benedict XVI. It enables the reader to encounter the human being who ended up on the papal throne.
Last Testament: In his own words
Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald
Jacob Phillips, translator
Church Times Bookshop £15.30