Now we have what will surely be, perforce, the Last Testament of the retired pope in another interview with Peter Seewald, who has previously published several earlier interviews going back two decades. (For all my interest in all these interviews, I confess that I am not a fan of the genre.)
I read all of the Ratzinger-Seewald interviews for a variety of reasons, not least to track the trajectory of Ratzinger's ecclesiological thought on questions of papal primacy and patriarchates that I reviewed in detail in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy which, appearing as it did in 2011, featured one of my favourite photos of the then-reigning pope with the current Ecumenical Patriarch.
Turning now to this last interview and final testament, we find it opens with a very characteristic series of self-observations from Ratzinger. Though these may still come as a surprise to some especially dense and incorrigible journalists, they are not a surprise to the rest of us, who have never known Ratzinger to be some kind of arrogant bully or Panzerkardinal.
I first met Ratzinger briefly at a conference in Rome in 1998, and could immediately see from a brief encounter with him that he was a gentle, shy man and a scholar, not the Savonarola of the S&M fantasies from the typists and excitable tea ladies of the New York Times. Later on I would come to appreciate just how much of an introvert he is, and this becomes very clear in this last testament, with his frequent references to how often he has to seek out silence, and how, accordingly, he made changes to the papal routine so that there could be more silence in his day with fewer people around at, e.g., mealtimes.
His longing to leave Rome, already by the early 1990s, in order to return once more to his scholarship and the writing of books, is well known and has emerged repeatedly in other interviews (Cf. his own Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977.) He was never able to leave, and I think that regardless of what one thinks of the man, and prescinding from any of his particular decisions as pope, one must respect his devotion to duty and his fidelity, loyalty, and long-suffering service to the Church even when he longed to be elsewhere--to be back home in his study.
His devotion reminds me of this powerful speech from Queen Mary to the new Queen Elizabeth II in the surprisingly excellent Netflix series The Crown:
Ratzinger's humility, never in doubt for me, marks the opening of this detailed interview as he is asked a question about whether he misses the trappings, power, and attention of the papacy, to which he responds: "I never accepted 'power' so that I would be in any way strong, but always as a responsibility, as something difficult and burdensome." A little later on he says of himself that "I am an entirely average Christian" and, reflecting on what he would say to the Lord at the time of his immediate post-mortem judgment, "I would plead with him to show leniency towards my wretchedness."
I confess that I did not, in 2005, fully appreciate how much his modesty would afflict his pontificate. Nor did I appreciate the question of his age and fatigue. I did not know that he had suffered a major brain hemorrhage in 1991 which would progressively destroy his sight in his left eye entirely, and affect his right eye, all the while leaving him extremely tired. Repeatedly here he reflects on how his hope, going into, and even during the early stages of, the 2005 conclave that as bishops have to retire at 75 there's no way the cardinals will elect a tired 78-year-old as bishop of a city he had been trying to leave for over a decade, each time told by John Paul II that he was needed in Rome and would not be released back to his book-lined study.
Because of his modesty, fatigue, and also, as it would emerge, his ecclesiology, he did not use the papacy in the way some of us at the time hoped and certainly thought he would. I was a graduate student in 2005 and together with a couple of other fellow students we had our own little ecclesial Committee of Union and Progress in which we fantasized about how many revolutionary changes we would hope to see, beginning with the liturgy. Truth be told, in our youthful zeal, we rather hoped that those Savonarola fantasies might just be true.
Those who have been reading Ratzinger for as long as I have know that the central priority of his life has been liturgy. As pope he made one of the most significant moves in the last 50 years on this question, and as a result deserves great and lasting credit, as I argued here. That 2007 decision, Summorum Pontificum, freed up celebrations of the older form of the Roman Rite. Here, in this last Testament, he says simply that he had to free up the older rite because it was simply absurd for any group of people--a Church or club or whatever--to be told that what they once held as central and sacrosanct was now forbidden. If it could so easily be declared forbidden, then obviously it was never so central and sacrosanct, a notion Ratzinger finds so absurd as to require no comment.
But Ratzinger's focus on the liturgy has always been wider than that. His first sustained attention came in a book from the early 1980s, The Feast of Faith. Longer and more detailed attention came in his 2000 book The Spirit of the Liturgy. This latter book is especially useful for his argument that the West never adequately received the spirit and decisions of Nicaea II, and therefore has never quite gotten iconoclasm out of its system, as seen in periodic outbursts of it, not least in the aftermath of Vatican II.
I confess that there was one brief bit of disappointment and disagreement here, though I understand and to some extent agree with Ratzinger. Pressed by Seewald to do more than just free up the older Roman Rite, but to take active measures to deal with wider, deeper problems in the Latin liturgy, Ratzinger firmly and repeatedly denies that he could or should have done any such thing. Ecclesiologically I agree with him, since the idea that the pope regulates everything, including how Fr. X celebrates Mass in little Parish Y in Village Z, is a monstrous modern myth I hope to live long enough to see destroyed.
But at the same time, since a centralized papacy inflicted the widespread and enormously damaging liturgical problems on the Latin Church in 1969, one could make an argument that using that same papacy to make some large-scale reversals of the damaging changes would be entirely in order. But pressed on this repeatedly, Ratzinger is having none of it:
As Prefect you complained about an impoverishment and misuse of the liturgy....Why has so little happened in this area? You certainly had all the authority to do something.
Institutionally and juridically one cannot do much about it at all. What is important is that an inward vision emerges, and that people learn what liturgy is from seeing inwardly....That is why I've just written books.....But one cannot just command that.
One thinks the Pope has the authority; he can just put his foot down.
It won't work?
It won't work, no!I think, frankly, this is a bit short-sighted and self-serving. The pope could indeed do more, but Ratzinger made the prudential, human, and very defensible decision to lead by example in his own papal celebrations rather than to try to legislate for the entire Latin Church. Given that the Latins routinely ignore liturgical legislation anyway, Ratzinger's insistence that such a strategy would be ineffective is not without a good deal of evidence, alas. Still, fully aware of the paradox and problems of papal power, one would not be entirely unhappy to see sterner measures applied pour encourager les autres.
Ratzinger does not revisit most of the decisions made during his time, except briefly. Given the focus of my 2011 book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy, I looked for any final thoughts from him on the vexed handling of the title of Patriarch of the West. But he says nothing. Indeed, of the East he says very little other than to note that he had a good meeting after his election with Met. Kiril of the Russian Church, now that body's patriarch. He also notes how close the Catholic Church is to Orthodoxy unlike to Protestantism, which he sees as very much in a phase of terminal decline.
Seewald is a careful, tenacious interviewer who repeatedly circles back at least thrice to controverted questions to draw Ratzinger out further. But each time Ratzinger is consistent in his answer--whether about the Williamson affair, the theft of documents by the butler, the Regensburg lecture, or other events. Ratzinger sometimes notices where he was too naieve, or not active enough, and there are some decisions he wishes had been handled differently.
But the overall vision is of a man at peace at the end of his life. There are no bitter jabs at people, no acute pangs of regret or longing, no barbed comments, least of all towards his successor, whom he praises on a couple of occasions for being more extroverted, more able to interact with people, and for having more energy and vigor in pursuing reforms, some of which Ratzinger himself started (e.g., with the Vatican Bank).
Perhaps the most consistent, and certainly most moving, theme of the entire book is to be found in Ratzinger's constant references to how close to hand he has found God, the "loving God" as he almost always refers to Him. Whenever some decision or anxiety is near, God is nearer still to guide and strengthen a gracious man who has lived through some of the most pivotal events of the last 90 years in the history of Church and world alike.
As he now prepares, by his own admission, for his death, let us thank God for Joseph Ratzinger's many gifts, and pray God to forgive him whatever "wretchedness" is in need of divine pardon.