Princess Alessandra Borghese is a descendent of one of Italy’s best known aristocratic families, famous for its popes, cardinals and a glorious villa and park in the center of Rome.
But despite her family’s rich Catholic history, she hasn’t always been a devout Catholic. She returned to the faith in the 1990s after a decade as a lapsed Catholic.
She spoke with Register correspondent Edward Pentin in Rome Sept. 24 about her journey of faith and about her recent book that retraces the early life of Pope Benedict and his Bavarian roots.
What prompted you to write In the Footsteps of Joseph Ratzinger?
To be frank, I wasn’t planning to write this book. I didn’t go to Bavaria with the idea to write it, but I happened to be in Bavaria, and I saw this beautiful interview with Pope Benedict on television. I think it was the first kind of television interview in history, given to four or five reporters in Castel Gandolfo. While watching this interview and being in Bavaria, I said, “I should try to write a book about the Pope. I’m in his homeland, and I have the opportunity to get to know many of his friends, family members, people who knew him well when he was a cardinal. Why not give it a try?”
And so the idea came about in Bavaria, a few weeks before he visited as Pope on his first trip back to his homeland. I decided to stay there; I changed my ticket, and I followed in his footsteps.
You’ve known him for quite awhile, even before he was Pope?
Yes. I had the opportunity to meet Cardinal Ratzinger 10 years ago when I was counselor to the mayor of Rome for the Jubilee Year. It wasn’t a political assignment but an honorary one. Two years before the Jubilee, the mayor asked me what I would like to do for the year — not the full program, just within the municipality of Rome.
So I said, “Why don’t we invite a prominent cardinal so that you, mayor, have the opportunity to invite that part of Rome who didn’t vote for you?”
He said, “Yes, who would you like to invite?” I said, “For me, there is only one cardinal: Cardinal Ratzinger.” And he said, “Give me 24 hours.”
He made a couple of phone calls, and he came back to me saying, “You have carte blanche to do whatever you want.”
What were the most interesting aspects of his character that you came across when writing the book?
I believe there are three main aspects of Joseph Ratzinger’s character — one is family, the second would be tradition, and the third, I believe, is friendship. I was very impressed to notice the kind of friends he still has and the strong sense of friendship he has always had with his friends and the people he met when he was younger.
He’s very loyal?
Very loyal, and in his attachment to his homeland, to his tradition, his education. He’s very proud of coming from a really tiny village, knowing exactly what his tradition is, and being so open at the same time. I believe it’s a great message for young people nowadays in a global world where everybody likes to chat with people all over the world and to be the same. It’s very important to be proud of our roots, even if they are humble like the Pope’s. He comes from a very small village, but that doesn’t mean these roots haven’t made him strong. He’s our Pope.
Then the third point is family. When he speaks of family, he knows what he’s talking about because he had a very loving family, a beautiful relationship with his mother. It may have been stronger with his father, but prayer was always a very important moment of the family’s life. Imagine that, at that time, under Hitler, you have two children becoming priests. That means you’re quite a family — a Catholic family with very important ideas, belief and faith.
Which aspects of his character do you find most appealing?
I would say humility, humbleness, modesty and the sweetness of Benedict are amazing, in a sense, because they can really reach many, many people on different levels.
Also, because the Pope is able to speak at a certain intellectual level and even to laypeople who, while they may not be very opposed to the Church are not interested in the Church — the secular movements or the liberal intellectual elites. When he speaks, they’re very interested in him; they pay attention to him because he’s considered an intellectual.
He’s considered one of the great thinkers of our age, and at the same time, he’s so able to explain in a simple way matters of importance. Young people really understand him very well when he speaks, even simple people, too. So he’s able to reach the heart, and sometimes, even the nerves, because he says things that not everybody wants to hear.
How much do you think the environment in which he was raised molded his character?
Very much indeed, because as we said before, tradition, roots and family all form his character. But at the same time, he’s also a professor, so he’s studied different cultures in great detail. When we were in France recently, he told us how much the French culture was inspired from a human and theological standpoint. So he is a man with curiosity from an intellectual point of view, and he has a very eclectic personality.
How did writing the book help your own faith?
As I started to write the first pages of this book about the place in Bavaria where I found my faith again years ago, I found myself very much in symphony with the Pope because he’s from Bavaria and the region is the place that helped me very much to rediscover the meaning of my life. So, yes, this book helped me to reimmerse myself into my faith and the major questions of why we believe in God, is it still worth following Jesus Christ? — the big questions.
You came back to the faith before this trip, after having fallen away. Could you tell us a little more about your “reversion”?
Yes, until I was 18 years old I went to convent schools — and I thank the sisters there, because maybe, at that particular moment, I didn’t understand how much they were working for me.
And then, for many years, perhaps for 10 to 12 years, I studied, I traveled, and faith was not my main goal or the main thing of my life. I was young; I was successful; I could speak many languages; I had many friends, and I had money. So, why God? Why do I need God?
And, in that sense, I was very much conforming to everybody else, trying to think that I could do it all myself. I felt we didn’t need God — maybe when we are in trouble, real trouble.
But as you go along [the journey of faith], you understand that God doesn’t take away anything from you, but he gives to you. It’s not in following God that you lose your freedom. You acquire much more freedom, and then you discover that God is not something abstract; it is a meeting.
God exists, is in our religion, as a meeting with a person called Jesus Christ. That’s our religion. It’s a concrete fact. It’s not abstract. And that’s what brings change to your life.
Do you hope to write more books about Pope Benedict?
My latest book is about Lourdes. It came out in Italy a few months ago and has been translated into French, Spanish and Portuguese. At the moment, I’m not thinking about writing another book on the Pope.
This particular book was a homage to the Pope; it was a sort of human portrait of our Pope. I had the opportunity to know him as a man, as a priest, and then he became a pope. I wanted to witness, to share what I had learned from this man and my intuition towards this man who today is our Pope. And I thought, although it was not an important work, it was nevertheless one written with heart.
You were with the Pope on his recent visit to France. What reflections can you share with us about that visit?
I believe it was very interesting the way Paris especially reacted to Pope Benedict. And when we talk about secularism, when we talk about relativism, we are talking about this kind of society. And it’s not so much laypeople as perhaps priests who are making big trouble these days in our Church.
From what I saw of the people there, they welcomed the Pope and had conviction to be there for him in silence and prayer. Secularism has always existed, but nowadays, if you want to be a Catholic, it’s your own decision, because it’s not a matter of tradition or culture anymore.
Many were surprised by the large crowds in Paris, especially in light of the entrenched secularism in the country.
Yes, they were there for the Pope. Whoever was there was there for the Pope, that’s for sure. For them, it was a big event that the Pope was in France, their motherland.
Edward Pentin is
based in Rome.
INFORMATION In the Footsteps of Joseph Ratzinger is published by Family Publications in the U.K.