The last testament of Benedict XVI

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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: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.