The last testament of Benedict XVI

How does he spend his days in the Mater Ecclesiae monastery? What led him to make the difficult decision to renounce the pontificate? These and other questions are answered by Pope Benedict XVI in his book The Last Testament (Bloomsbury Continuum). The book is based on an interview with the German journalist Peter Seewald, author of the book-interviews Salt of the Earth (1996) and God and the World (2002), which were written about then Cardinal Ratzinger, and also the book Light of the World (2010), the result of an interview that was done during Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate. The Last Testament is the first book-interview written on a pope emeritus.

Sitting in the serenity of his new home, without the pressure of the pontificate, Benedict XVI begins his interview practically at the end: His current life where he is dedicated to prayer and study, and in which his time is spent receiving visits from his friends who come from different parts of the world to dialogue with him.

The Pope emeritus talks about how the idea of leaving the pontificate grew in his mind and heart, even though something like that hasn’t happened in more than five centuries in the Church’s history. It was a difficult decision made with the full awareness that God asked him to withdraw and leave this difficult task to a younger and more vital person. Humility, realism and an intimate union with God were the elements that led him to make a historical decision, wise on the one hand, but difficult on the other. The almost eight years of his pontificate were guided by the first words that he gave when he was elected Pope in which he said he was only “a simple and humble worker of the vineyard of the Lord.”

The interview also has a biographical tone in which Benedict XVI speaks of the Ratzinger family—his parents, his personal relationship with his two brothers, Mary and Georg, the environment in which he grew up in the bosom of a humble family, living in the convulsed Germany of World War II and his years of study. He also talks about some details of the Second Vatican Council, a meeting in which he participated as a young priest, witnessing a decisive moment for the history of the Church, in which new methods and expressions were promoted to transmit the Word of God; the same of yesterday, today and always.

He also talks about his predecessor St. John Paul II with whom he worked from 1981 to 2005 and with whom he established a beautiful friendship. He admired his vitality, the constant presence of God in which he lived, and how both personalities (John Paul II, more sociable, Benedict XVI, more timid) could complement and understand each other so well. He also shares his reaction and feelings regarding he day he was elected Pope, and shares some reflections, aspects and difficulties of his pontificate.

He highlights Pope Francis’s vitality, joy and his missionary zeal in which he always wants to go out to the peripheries and bring the most distant to the Church.

He also shares his literary hobbies (some of his favorite books are A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare and Dialogues of Carmelites, whose libretto is based on Bernanos’s eponymous book). His favorite painter is Rembrandt and his favorite composers are Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Although the title The Last Testament sounds a little harsh, this book gathers the words of a wise man who has had to face many challenges in his life and who, in the final stretch, leaves us the testament of his reflections full of wisdom, experiences and sound advice.

COMING UP: Forming mind and heart in faith

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“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

People tell me pretty regularly that we should not over-intellectualizing the faith — making the Church simply about ideas, doctrines, and rules. I agree that this can be a problem, but we also have to guard seriously against an opposite problem — emotionalizing and privatizing faith. We are blessed with a reasonable faith that can be studied in harmony with the truth of the natural world. Faith and reason strengthen one another, together leading our minds to conform to the mind of the God who is our Creator and Redeemer. In the midst of a secularism which pits science against the faith, it is important that we form our minds in the truth. Being rooted in the truth of our faith does not lead to abstract ideas, but to an encounter with the living God which sets our hearts on fire with His love.

The Dominicans have a long history of teaching the faith, founded originally to preach to those who had fallen into the dualistic heresy of Albigensian and producing the Common Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. The papal theologian, who advised the pope, by tradition comes from St. Dominic’s Order. One of the most renown Dominicans teaching in the United States, Father Thomas Joseph White, has recently been called to Rome to teach at the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of the Dominicans. Father White, though a profound scholar, has produced a clear and accessible overview of the Catholic faith.

Father White’s book, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (Catholic University of America Press, 2017) offers a serious overview of the Catholic faith. It is not a scholarly work, but one that does challenge us to enter more deeply into the theological tradition of the Church, flowing from the Bible and Catechism, the Fathers, and especially the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Part of the genius of the book is how it uses the theological tradition to address contemporary concerns such as evolution, sexual ethics, and relativism. The book contains seven major sections—Reason and Revelation, God and Trinity, Creation and the Human Person, Incarnation and Atonement, the Church, Social Doctrine, and the Last Things—as well as a robust epilogue on prayer.

Father White challenges us to “to be an intellectual. . . to seek to see into the depths of reality” (1). As intellectual beings, we have been created in the image of God and are called to enter into his truth and life. Therefore, White reminds us that “every person has to accept risk in truth’s call to us. Even religious indifference is a kind of risk, perhaps the greatest of all, for if nothing is ventured, nothing is gained. The mind is reason’s instrument, but the heart its seat” (5). Therefore, the ultimate questions lead the mind into prayerful contemplation of the truth. Theology cannot remain an intellectual enterprise alone, but must lead us to encounter God in prayer: “Prayer is grounded in our natural desire for the truth. When we pray we are trying to find God, to praise him, and to see all things realistically in light of him. In a sense, then, prayer stems from a search for perspective” (288).

Our faith forms us as a whole person and shapes our feelings and desires according to what is highest. Father White rightly points out that “heart and intelligence go together” (49). When it comes to God, intellectual theory is not enough, as he calls us to know him in a “concrete, personal, affective relationship” (48). This does not mean that we can dispense with theology. Quite to the contrary, “we want to get right who God is, and what the mystery of Christ is, so that we can be in living contact with divine love” (42). God speaks to us so that we may come to know him by exercising our minds to know the truth given us through the Church (36).

Knowing God is the work a lifetime and our eternal vocation. We can strengthen our faith by studying theological truths and deepening our capacity to contemplate divine things. Father White’s book will help us all to be theologians, entering into the practice of theology as faith seeking understanding. As we come to know God more, it should lead us to fall in love with him more deeply, strengthening our relationship with him and preparing us to see him face to face.