Brennan Pursell never expected to be Catholic.
From his first home in California, to England, to the East Coast, even to India, he wandered restlessly in search of he knew not what. Along the way he found good times, good advice, good jobs and a good education, but something was missing.
Only when Providence plunked him down in a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria on 45 minutes’ notice did he find peace, truth, meaning, Catholicism — and the writings of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Now Pursell, with a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, teaches European history at De Sales University in Center Valley, Pa. He is also the author of Benedict of Bavaria: An Intimate Portrait of the Pope and His Homeland (Circle Press).
What moved you to write Benedict of Bavaria?
It all started on April 19, 2005. I came home from work — my daughter had just been born, so my Bavarian in-laws were visiting — and the papal conclave was on TV, and there was Cardinal Ratzinger standing on the loggia!
We just couldn’t believe it. I’d been following the media coverage, and the blackballing of this sensational figure had been so extreme, I honestly didn’t think the cardinals would have the courage to choose him. But there he was, Pope Benedict XVI.
I thought, “I’d love to help him out,” because in America he has an uphill battle. Few people will ever read a book of his, and most rely on the TV and mainstream media.
For years, Ratzinger was unfairly depicted as a source of controversy, actually a lightning rod for frustrations. The prognosis for the new pontificate was along the same lines. But what could I do? I didn’t think that I was anyone to write about the Pope until a couple of months later, when I just started to do it.
At first, I wanted to give people an idea about his cultural context, in contrast to the new papal biographies that were then being published in English. Most were off the mark in the sense that they emphasized his Vatican career, ignoring his Bavarian roots.
And you have personal ties to the region of Bavaria, as well?
Yes, I first went in the summer of 1994 to stay at the Benedictine monastery of Metten, at the edge of the Bavarian Forest. There I was received into the Catholic Church, and that same summer I met my wife-to-be, although I didn’t know it at the time.
I returned the next summer as part of an archive tour for my doctoral dissertation. Then it became clear to me that I had to spend at least a year working in the Bavarian state archives in Munich. I also fell in love, totally, in a grand way. Then I landed a German scholarship to do a year’s worth of research.
I lived in Bavaria during the academic year of 1996-97, during which time my wife and I married. To say the least, for me it is the land of great gifts.
At that time, you say you were reading a lot of Pope Benedict’s writing. How was his thought connected to your journey to Catholicism?
It was the next stage — toward a higher level of understanding and enrichment. The phrase that comes to mind is one that people sometimes say — “I was converted or raised Catholic, but I was never evangelized.”
He was integral to my evangelization. Conversion is a process, and I just love the spiritual enrichment of the journey. By reading Ratzinger-Benedict my journey took off, accelerated, rose to a new level.
With so many other books about Benedict on the market, what would you say makes yours unique?
I’m under the impression that mine’s the most up-to-date. Most of the others were very hurried, written mostly by “Vaticanistas” and professional journalists. Some just described his Church career and election, while others were really tendentious and went after him — that’s just the way it’s going to be.
Well, I’m not a Vatican journalist, so my sources are not interviews with pundits and insiders — which are important, but they’re basically about popular attitudes. Mine was based on research — I read tons more than I wrote, especially articles and books in German from 2005 and 2006.
Around that time, anyone in Bavaria who had known the Pope personally gave a local televised or radio interview or else wrote a little newspaper article, bulletin item or even a short book.
My in-laws, who live in Bavaria, gathered all these things for me — virtually none of these sources have been translated into English. In particular, there’s a wonderful German book called Und plötzlich Papst (And Suddenly Pope), which is a collection of writings from 40 people who knew him at various stages in his life. The depiction it gives definitely clashes with the media representation.
I wanted to write about him so that everyone would know what the people who knew him best had to say about him.
During the process of researching for your book, what was the one detail you learned about Pope Benedict XVI that interested or pleased you the most?
One little-known thing I really love about him is that he has got an extremely subtle sense of humor, a wry side, ironic and self-deprecating. Of course, he’s not known for being a joker, but I think he’s very funny, especially when he gives interviews in German.
When a journalist in Munich demanded why women could not be ordained as Catholic priests, he said, “I am simply not authorized to make an ‘Our Mother’ out of the ‘Our Father.’”
In one radio exchange, someone asked him what his weaknesses and greatest failings were. He said, “My failings are many — you should ask my co-workers, they can certainly tell you — but this, you agree, is not quite the right venue for a general confession.”
John Allen also quotes a wonderful moment during an interview that then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave about his own autobiography, Milestones, published in 1997: A reporter asked why there was nothing in the text about girlfriends. Ratzinger said, “Well, I had to keep the manuscript to 100 pages.” Isn’t that classic?
And now you’re leading pilgrimages to Bavaria, so people can see his birthplace and roots.
Yes. This year the pilgrimage will be June 27 to July 6. We’ll literally follow in the footsteps of Benedict XVI, visit the places mentioned in my book, expose people to the landscape and culture in which he grew up.
I’ll put together a list of readings so that people can get to know him and his teachings. A priest will lead a spiritual retreat in Altötting, where we’ll be based for a couple of days.
We’ll get to know the spiritual side of Bavaria: not snazzy downtown Munich, but southeastern Bavaria, Catholic Bavaria, which is Pope Benedict’s background.
How about you — are you planning another book? What else in the life of the Church would you like to write about?
Yes, I have started another book. The provisional title is A Christian History of the West. There isn’t one that I’ve found that is both accessible and recent that delivers the story of the West with the Christian understanding of time, who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going. I thought of trying A Christian History of the World, but that smacked too much of hubris.
I’ve also got a complete manuscript of a historical novel, which I’m looking to publish. It’s a romance and murder mystery, a court drama about the tension between Catholicism and Protestantism in 17th-century Europe. It’s called The Spanish Match and is based very closely on real events.
I’m a historian — the best lines aren’t mine; they come right out of letters. What really happened was that the Prince of Wales and the Marquis of Buckingham put on commoners’ clothes and false beards, called themselves Tom and John Smith, crossed the Channel in winter, rode across France, showed up at the Spanish court and basically said, “Hand over the princess.”
Madrid was stunned, and it goes from there. I hope some editor will give it a good look.
Katy Carl is based in
Silver Spring, Maryland.