Castel Gandolfo in the summer. The way to the Pope’s residence led over lonely country roads.

In the fields the grain swayed in a gentle breeze, and in the hotel where I had reserved a room a happy wedding party was dancing. Only the lake below in the hollow seemed peaceful and calm, as big and blue as the sea.

As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger had twice granted me the opportunity to interview him over the course of several days. The Church must not hide, was his attitude; the faith must be explained; and it can be explained, because it is reasonable. He impressed me as being young and modern, not a bean-counter, but rather a man who ventures bravely and retains his curiosity. A masterful teacher, and a disconcerting one as well, because he sees that we are losing things that we really cannot do without.

In Castel Gandolfo some things were different. A cardinal is a cardinal, and the Pope is the Pope. Never before in the history of the Church had a Pontiff answered questions in the form of a personal, direct interview. The mere fact of this conversation sets an important new tone. Benedict XVI had agreed to be at my disposal during his vacation, from Monday through Saturday of the last week in July, for one hour each day. Yet, I reflected, how candid would his answers turn out to be? How does he judge his work thus far? What else does he have planned?

Dark clouds had gathered over the Catholic Church. The scandal of sexual abuse cast its shadow on Benedict's pontificate as well. I was interested in the causes of these things, in the handling of them, but at the same time also in the pressing concerns of the Pope in a decade that scientists believe is going to be absolutely decisive for the overall future of the planet.

The crisis of the Church is one thing, the crisis of society another. The two are not unconnected. Some have reproached Christians, since their religion is an illusory world. But are we not acquainted today with very different worlds that are in fact illusory? The illusory worlds of financial markets, the media, luxury items and fashions? Are we not being forced to witness, painfully, a modern world that is losing its standards and values and is in danger of sinking into the abyss? That is evident in a banking system that is destroying the colossal wealth of the people. There is life in the fast lane, which is literally making us sick. There is the universe of the Internet, for which we do not yet have any answers. Where are we actually going? Are we really allowed to do everything we are able to do?

And when we look into the future: How will the next generation cope with the problems that we are leaving to it? Have we sufficiently prepared and trained them? Does it have a foundation that provides the security and strength to weather even stormy times?

The question is also this: If Christianity in the West is losing its power to shape society, who or what is replacing it? A non-religious "civil society" that no longer tolerates any reference to God in its constitution? A radical atheism that vehemently fights against the values of Judeo-Christian culture?

In every era there has been an attempt to declare God dead, to turn to things that were supposedly more comprehensible, even if they were golden calves. The Bible is full of stories like that. They have less to do with the insufficient attractiveness of faith than with the forces of temptation. But where, then, is a society distanced from God, a godless society headed? Did the twentieth century not just carry out that experiment in the West and the East? With its terrible consequences for the peoples that were afflicted: the smokestacks in the concentration camps, the murderous gulags?

The director of the papal residence, a very friendly elderly man, led me through seemingly endless rooms. He had been acquainted with John XXIII and all his successors, he whispered to me; this one here, he said, is an unusually fine Pope – and inconceivably hard-working.

We waited in an antechamber big as a riding hall. A short time later a door opened. And there stood the not exactly gigantic figure of the Pope, who held out his hand to me. His forces had diminished, he said by way of a greeting, almost apologetically. But then there was no sign at all that the strain of office had really affected the vigor of this man, much less his charisma. Quite the contrary.

As a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger used to warn about the loss of identity, of orientation, of truth that would result if a new paganism were to take control of people's thoughts and actions. He criticized the narrow-mindedness of a "society of greed" that dares less and less to hope and no longer to believe. It was important, he said, to develop a new sensitivity toward a threatened creation, to oppose the forces of destruction decisively.

Nothing has changed along these lines. Today, as Pope, he wants his Church to submit to a kind of thorough housecleaning after the terrible cases of abuse and other aberrations. What is indispensable, after so many fruitless discussions and a debilitating concern with herself, is finally to become reacquainted with the mystery of the Gospel, Jesus Christ, in all his cosmic greatness. In this crisis of the Church there is a tremendous opportunity, namely, to rediscover what is authentically Catholic. The task is to show God to the people and to tell them the truth. The truth about the mysteries of creation. The truth about human existence. And the truth about our hope, which goes beyond merely worldly matters.

Have we not long since trembled at what we have wrought? The ecological catastrophe continues unchecked. The decline of culture assumes menacing forms. With the medical and technological manipulation of human life, which was once considered sacred, the final boundaries are violated.

At the same time we long for a world that is reliable and trustworthy, that is close and human and protects us in little things and makes the big things accessible to us. Does not the current situation, which often seems so apocalyptic, all but force us to reflect once more about some fundamental things? Where we come from. Where we are going. To ask those questions that are seemingly banal – and that nevertheless burn so inextinguishably in the heart that no generation can get around them? Questions about the meaning of life. About the end of the world. About the Second Coming of Christ, as it is proclaimed in the Gospel.

Six hours interviewing the Pope is a lot of time, and yet six hours is also very little. Within the framework of this discussion only a few questions could be addressed and many could not be answered in depth. In authorizing the text, the Pope did not change the spoken word and made only small corrections where he considered greater factual precision necessary.

Light of the World
by Peter Seewald

The message of Benedict XVI, however, is in the end a dramatic appeal to the Church and the world, to each individual: There is no way we can possibly continue as before, he exclaims. Mankind stands at a crossroads. It is time for reflection. Time for change. Time for conversion. And unwaveringly he maintains: "There are so many problems that all have to be solved but that will not all be solved unless God stands in the center and becomes visible again in the world."

The answer given to this question, "whether God exists – the God of Jesus Christ – and is acknowledged, or whether he disappears", is deciding today, "in this dramatic situation, the fate of the world".

For today's life-style, positions of the sort that are advocated by the Catholic Church have become a monstrous provocation. We have grown accustomed to regarding traditional, time-tested viewpoints and behavior as something that ought to be done away with in favor of cheap trends. The Pope believes, however, that the age of relativism – a world view "that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate standard consists solely of one's own ego and desires" – is gradually coming to an end. Today, at any rate, a growing number of people cherish the Church not only for her liturgy but also for her resistance; and meanwhile, after a lot of "just going through the motions", a transformation of awareness is becoming evident: people are beginning again to take Christian witness seriously and also to live their religion authentically.

As for the Pope himself: "What is it like", I was asked, "suddenly to sit very close, right across from him?" It reminded me of Émile Zola, who in one of his novels describes a priest who waits, trembling and almost paralyzed, for an audience with Leo XIII. Now with Benedict XVI there is no need to tremble. He makes it remarkably easy for the visitor. This is no Prince of the Church, but rather a servant of the Church, a great giver who completely exhausts himself in his giving.

Sometimes he looks a bit skeptically at you. Over his eyeglasses. Seriously, attentively. And if you are listening to him and sitting beside him, then you not only sense the precision of his thinking and the hope that comes from faith, but then also in a special way a radiance from the light of the world becomes visible, from the face of Jesus Christ, who wants to encounter each one of us and excludes no one.

Peter Seewald
Munich, October 15, 2010

Read excerpts from Light of the World here and here.




Pope Benedict XVI and Peter Seewald. (2010). "Preface." in Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. xv-xx.

Reprinted with permission from Ignatius Press.


Pope Benedict XVI is the author of Caritas in Veritate: Charity in Truth, Saved in Hope: Spe Salvi, God Is Love: Deus Caritas Est, Jesus of Nazareth, The End of Time?: The Provocation of Talking about God, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, Salt of the Earth: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church at the End of the Millennium, God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, The Spirit of the Liturgy, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Introduction to Christianity, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, Behold the Pierced One, and God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life.

Peter Seewald is a veteran German journalist who, in addition to Light of the World, has done two other internationally best-selling book length interviews with Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI): Salt of the Earth and God and the World. He is also the author of Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait, and the photo-biography Pope Benedict XVI: Servant of the Truth.

Copyright © 2010 Ignatius Press

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