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Fearless and engaged: Review of Light of the World

November 23, 2010
A few pages into "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times", Peter Seewald disappeared. The German journalist had secured one of the world’s most elusive interviews—a one-on-one with the Pope. Since the start of his pontificate, Benedict XVI had until now given only a couple of interviews, apart from brief sessions where the questions were carefully pre-selected. And those other interviews—most notably, with Polish state television in 2005 and with German media the following year—were not nearly as generous as the six one-hour audiences that this author was granted.
Seewald doesn’t squander the opportunity. He poses almost all of the questions that a Catholic journalist might want to know. As I read the book last week—transfixed, in two sittings—Seewald receded from the interview. It became a conversation between the Pope and me. As Archbishop Rino Fisichella described the book at its launch in the Vatican, the Holy Father “opens the door of his apartment and lets us in”.
As the interview shifted from one controversial topic to another, I wondered how the press would handle the material. The media has become accustomed to mining the Pope’s statements for oblique references. And here, he speaks directly to countless issues of immense importance to Catholics and the world. It is the mother lode.
I didn't foresee that the Pope’s remarks on condoms would consume all of the media’s attention. The fact that it did represents a terrible irony. The topic was initiated as Seewald recalled the pontiff’s previous statement about condoms en route to his papal visit to Cameroon and Angola.
“The media coverage completely ignored the rest of the trip to Africa,” the Pope complained, “on account of a single statement.”
Once again, a remark about condoms (that, the Holy See stresses, does not signal any change in Church teaching) threatens to bury other arguably more significant pronouncements. These pertain to the liturgy, secularism, the wartime legacy of Pope Pius XII, the Church’s relationship with Islam, and even clergy sex abuse. Months ago, it was inconceivable that the media would divert attention away from the abuse crisis.
The Pope offers important new statements in each of those areas. Still, his general positions are largely known to those who pay attention, even if they remain misunderstood by the general public. More revelatory are the candid descriptions of his personal life as a pope.
“Are you afraid of an assassination attempt?,” Seewald asks. No, the Pope answers plainly. The heightened security measures during his trip to the Holy Land were, in his estimation, “almost excessive”.
Does he ever feel so confined in the Vatican that he must escape incognito, as John Paul II famously did?
“I don't do that,” he tells Seewald, though he acknowledges that the papacy deprives him of some of the freedoms of his past life.
He confesses that, at 83 years old, his “forces are diminishing” and he needs sufficient rest to carry out his responsibilities. He doesn’t feel the need to use an exercise bike that was installed in the apostolic palace.
Pilgrims preparing for next year’s World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain, are reassured that the Pope also plans to attend, but only “if, God willing, I am still alive.”
One sometimes hears Catholics wonder aloud about whether World Youth Days are enjoyable experiences for this pope, whose reputation as a reserved academic contrasts with John Paul II’s more expressive public persona. He maintains that the global gatherings “have actually turned out to be a genuine gift for me.”
Brazenly, Seewald does not hesitate to engage the Holy Father in a direct comparison with his predecessor.
“I really am a debtor,” says Benedict, a pope who is at peace with his limitations, “a modest figure who is trying to continue what John Paul II accomplished as a giant.”
During the 2005 conclave that elected him, he admits that he was convinced that there were “better and younger candidates.”
Nevertheless, it was Joseph Ratzinger who would enter the “room of tears” next to the Sistine Chapel. There, he comforted himself with the knowledge that “there must be, besides the great Popes, little ones also, who give what they can.”
While Benedict emerges as a man of humility in "Light of the World", he equally manages to dispel some of his perceived weaknesses. Repeatedly during his pontificate, Vatican commentators have charged that the Pope is too isolated—that, while he is engrossed in his prolific writing, an overly protective circle of advisers shields him from public criticism. To this the Pope responds, “I cannot say that I live in an artificial world of courtly personages.”
He tells Seewald that he watches the news daily. But his perspective clearly is not drawn from the echo chamber of the media. Rather, he says his worldview is shaped by his daily contact with bishops, priests, religious and lay people from all around the world.
“There are, I believe, few people who have as many meetings as I do,” he tells Seewald—the lone boast in this candid portrait of a pope, who invites us to meet him, one-on-one.
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