November 30, 2010


The pope whisperer (Irish Times, 11/27/10)

Peter Seewald was born in Bochum but grew up in the Bavarian city of Passau, steeped in the region’s conservative Catholic atmosphere. By the age of 18 he had gone from altar boy to Marxist, writing for a left-wing paper and distributing communist pamphlets in his spare time.

In 1981 he joined Der Spiegel magazine and later moved to Stern, by which time his own religious beliefs were, he thought, a distant memory.

It was in this frame of mind that he accepted the assignment that would change his life: to interview Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the Vatican for the magazine of the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

By 1981, after leaving Munich, where he had been the city’s archbishop, Ratzinger had risen to prominence – some would say notoriety – in the Vatican as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Seewald said later that none of the clippings he read on “God’s Rottweiler” prepared him for the “clever, pious and modest” man he met in 1996. That interview was the first of many hours of conversation and, said Seewald, the start of a 15-year process that saw him return to the church of his childhood.

Along the way came two book-length interviews with Ratzinger: “Salt of the Earth” and “God and the World”. In the intervening years Seewald opened a shop in Munich selling products from monasteries around the world, but closed it again without success.

All the while, he said, he was on a journey back to his faith, one that last summer led him back to Ratzinger, by then Pope Benedict XVI, the first German pope in nearly 500 years.

The pope agreed to meet him in the last week of July in Castel Gandolfo, at the papal summer residence, for six consecutive days of conversation, an hour at a time. The published transcript reveals an interesting shift in their relationship.

In 1996 Seewald opened “Salt of the Earth” with a cheeky question to the then cardinal: “It is said, your eminence, that the pope is afraid of you . . .” Just two pages on, Ratzinger admits he often feels lonely and tired, not to mention frustrated at the “sclerotic” organisation to which he has dedicated his life.

Later, when the conversation shifts to religion itself, the then sceptic Seewald asks, “How many paths are there to God?” Ratzinger replies: “As many as there are people.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 30, 2010 8:11 AM
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