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: 500 years later, who was Luther?

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Hero, villain, heretic, saint, reformer, corrupter, man of integrity, bombastic glutton. Which image of Luther should we believe? Because Luther primarily sought not to reform abuses in the Church but to reform the Church’s beliefs, Catholics cannot recognize him as a true reformer or a holy man. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that Luther played a major role in shaping the modern world. With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement he initiated approaching on October 31st, we have been given a number of new books to assess his legacy.

Paul Hacker, Luther’s Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion, preface by Pope Benedict XVI (Emmaus, 2017).

Hacker’s book provides an in-depth, theological analysis of the issue that stands at the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Pope Benedict’s preface tells us that the Reformation dispute fundamentally concerned Luther’s “turning away from the center of the Gospel” (xxii). Emmaus released a new edition of Hacker’s book for the anniversary this year. It was published originally in 1970 (in English translation), the fruit of Hacker’s own intense study of Luther’s teaching on faith that led him into the Catholic Church from German Lutheranism.

Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith. The key issue of dispute, which Hacker reveals, is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin. Hacker describes Luther’s faith as reflexive, that is turned back on oneself, by emphasizing subjective experience and personal surety more than anything else. He describes how Luther differs from the Catholic position: “Faith is the way to, or the perquisite of, salvation, but Luther makes it coincide with salvation itself. This becomes possible because he has first identified salvation with the consciousness of being saved or the certitude of salvation, and then he equates this consciousness with faith” (71). Hacker shows us how this view of faith negated the Church’s authority, the sacraments, and even the need to love God.

Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).

For those looking for a more general and accessible book, Brad Gregory gives us a broader narrative of how Luther’s troubled conscience exploded into the crisis that tore Christendom in two. The first section looks at Luther’s own story, tracing step by step his conflict with Church authority. The second section explains how Luther’s teaching spawned a multitude of new sects and divisions, all interpreting the Bible in their own fashion. Greggory explains: “What the early Reformation shows so clearly is that scripture and the Spirt can be interpreted and applied in radically divergent ways. Once the papacy and the Catholic Church are thrown off, there are no shared authorities to adjudicate disagreements” (137). The final section looks at how the Reformation set the tone for the development of a secular culture. Though not intending these consequences, Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformers “led indirectly to a profound diminishing of Christianity’s public influence in Western societies. The religious disagreements and conflicts that followed the Reformation set the stage for religion’s eventual separation from the rest of life” (2).

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017).

Metaxas, who wrote a monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, provides us with a different perspective on Luther. His book seems poised to capture the largest audience for the anniversary this year. While I can’t agree with his view of Luther as a hero of faith, I can appreciate his presentation of a more sympathetic and thorough look at a man who has inspired many Protestant Christians. It is helpful to recognize why Luther is such an important figure for so many people. This book definitely provides many more details on the life of Luther (with over 450 pages). However, I would exercise caution, because it unfortunately also contains many gross misrepresentations of the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation.

For instance, even though Metaxas shows us many ways that Luther encountered the Bible in his early life, he still claims that the Bible and Church had no connection in the early 1500s and that “the study of the Bible per se was simply unheard of” (52). Luther himself was a theology professor and throughout the Middle Ages the Bible was the primary text for teaching theology. Brad Gregory makes clear in his book on Luther that there were even “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible . . . published in German . . . by 1518” (29). Metaxas presents a false picture of Catholics as ignorant, afraid to pray to Christ, and thinking they must earn their salvation through works. Good historical research could easily dispel these myths, such as the books of Eamon Duffy, but we see Protestants continue to project Luther’s own scruples (hating God and spending six hours in Confession, 47) onto the Church of his time.

Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017).

What could have Luther been if he had chosen faithful reform? The answer is a saint. There is no doubt that the Church was in need of serious reform in the 1500s. We have a number of great saints who show us that fidelity to God does not contradict fidelity to His Church. They stood against corruption and initiated deep and abiding reform. The Augustine Institute has release both a book and video series on true reformers, who boldly spoke out against abuses and led to a deeper realization of the truth found in the Bible, read in harmony with the Church. These figures—Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Charles Borromeo, for instance—continue to inspire us to take up the task of genuine reform today.