In his
introduction journalist Peter Seewald, who interviewed the Holy Father over
several hours at Castel Gandolfo for this book, points out that it is the first
time a Pope has engaged in such a personal interview. Although his questions
appear at times a little convoluted and repetitive, he can rightly take credit
for the scoop, for in this long ‘conversation’ Benedict XVI reveals himself in
a way not possible for the public smiling figure we have seen during Papal
visits or on our television screens.

What is
revealed is a man at once engagingly straightforward and wholly bound up with
bearing witness to the “truth, the love and the joy that comes from conversion
to Christ”, as George Weigel writes in his foreword. Prayer, the Holy Father
admits, is “begging, for the most part.” It is also trusting and humble: his
immediate thought on his election to the papacy was “I can’t do it. If you
wanted me, then you must also help me.” Asked by his interviewer about
comparisons between his pontificate and that of John Paul II, his great
predecessor, Benedict simply replies, “I am who I am.” Not surprisingly, given
both the burden of his office and his radical trust in God, his private motto
as Pope is, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.”

There is
also humour. Asked by Seewald if, like Churchill, he would say, “No sports!”
the Holy Father instantly responded, “Yes!” Not a keen goal-keeper in his youth
then, unlike John Paul II. Press speculation on his unusual headwear, the camauro, can now fall silent; it appears
“I was just cold and I happen to have a sensitive head.” A further glimpse of
his personality comes through in the fact that the Holy Father brought his desk
and his bookcases, as well as his books, with him to the Vatican: “I know every
nook and cranny and everything has its history.” The scholarly furniture of his
mind is reflected in the actual furniture of his study. He also wears the watch
his late sister Maria, who acted as his housekeeper, bequeathed to him.

Naturally,
some of the conversation centred on the priesthood, a vocation which has been
central to the Pope’s life for almost 60 years, ever since his ordination in
1951. Celibacy is possible to live “when priests begin to form communities… not
to live on their own somewhere, in isolation”. But Benedict is clear that
celibacy “cannot be a ‘pretext’ for bringing people into the priesthood who
don’t want to get married anyway” – a reference to those of a homosexual
orientation.  Asked about the
purpose of the recently concluded Year for Priests, Benedict sees it as a year
of purification, of interior renewal and “above all penance.”

This last,
a frank allusion to the scandal of child abuse, has brought him great
suffering; the priesthood “suddenly seemed to be a place of shame.” Asked if he
had considered resignation over the gravity of this scandal, the Pope
characteristically replied, “When the danger is great one must not run away.”
Several times during the interview he touched on the “mystery of evil” –
referring to this abuse, to unworthy past holders of the papal office and to
the particular case of Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, the disgraced founder of
the Legionaries of Christ. Yet even here the Holy Father was not prepared to
remain in a negative stance, reflecting on “the paradox, that a false prophet
could still have a positive effect.”

It will not
come as a surprise to readers to learn that Benedict, although speaking with
his customary care and courtesy, believes the Church has greater “spiritual
kinship” and “interior affinity” with the Orthodox Church rather than with
Protestantism, whose closeness to “the spirit of the modern age” has made
dialogue more difficult. Challenged over his Regensburg
Address
, which caused such a furore in the Islamic world, the Holy Father
did not prevaricate: Islam, he stated, still needed to clarify two questions –
its relationship to violence and it relationship to reason. Yet as with other
grave problems encountered in his papacy, he emphasised that hope had followed
this serious crisis: 138 Islamic scholars had written to him after Regensburg,
asking for dialogue.

On the
subject of Bishop Williamson of the SSPX and Holocaust notoriety, Seewald was
given a disarming admission: “None of us went on the internet”, the result
being, in the Holy Father’s words, a “total meltdown.” Indeed, “our public
relations work was a failure.” The same could perhaps be said of the advance media
publicity given to one paragraph on page 119 of the book, the Holy Father’s response
to a question about condom use.

So much has
been written on this – and will continue to be written in the months to come –
that it hardly needs to be stated here that Catholic doctrinal teaching about
sex, love and relationships has not changed; in this conversation Benedict was
speaking as a pastor of souls, aware both of the gravity of sin and the mysterious
possibilities of grace in the heart of a sinner. To me it brought to mind the
quotation from Isaiah in St Mathew’s Gospel: “He will not break a bruised
reed.”

Was such an
interview imprudent, as critics have suggested? I do not think so. Everything
the Holy Father said in his candid, considered responses revolves around his
passionate belief in the one thing needful: coming to know God’s love and how
this is manifested in Christ through the Church. This is what the elderly
interviewee in the white cassock, aware that his “forces are diminishing” and,
since his election, no longer able to go for walks with his brother near his
house in Pentling, Bavaria, wants to communicate. The book is well worth
reading, not in order to find loopholes in the law or to rake up controversy,
but to walk for a while in the company of a humble and holy man.


Francis
Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.