Archbishop Gänswein: New Benedict XVI Book 'Deconstructs' Old Image of Pope Emeritus

Benedict XVI's personal secretary highlights "new" and "illuminating" passages related to the Pope Emeritus' resignation.

Archbishop Georg Gänswein.
Archbishop Georg Gänswein. (photo: Edward Pentin/

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI “never became so human” as he does in a new book interview he has given the German journalist Peter Seewald, a work which achieves a “final deconstruction” of how both friends and foes have seen him in the past.

This is according to Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, Benedict’s personal secretary, in a Sept. 12 address at a launch of the book in Munich.

Entitled Benedict XVI — Last Testament, the 200 or so pages of conversations were published in various languages last Friday and will be published in English in November. Seewald has previously interviewed Benedict for Salt of the Earth, God and the World, and Light of the World.

Archbishop Gaenswein, who is also prefect of the Pontifical Household, drew particular attention to two key passages relating to Benedict’s resignation which he described as especially “illuminating” and “new knowledge.”

The book, as Archbishop Gaenswein pointed out, tackles three key areas: “the roots of the reasons and motives” and the “exact circumstances of Benedict’s puzzling resignation”; his relationship with Pope Francis; and the German Pope’s “personal point of view” on the different “crises and ‘scandals’ of his papacy.”

Regarding his resignation, Gaenswein states that the Pope Emeritus reiterates that “it was not an escape” and insists that “nobody” was demanding his resignation. “It was clear to me that I had to do it and that this was the right moment,” Benedict says in the book. “It was a complete surprise for everyone.”

Benedict says he “knew: I can’t do it anymore” and saw that the time had come to “disengage from the large crowds of people and adjourn into this greater intimacy.” It was “not an inner flight from the demand of the faith, which leads the people to the cross,” he explains in the book. “The step is not a flight but another way to remain faithful to my ministry.”

Asked if he ever regretted resigning, he replies: “No. No, no. I see that it was right every day” and that everything went even better than he had planned. For this reason, he said he couldn’t see himself as a failure. As to theories that some wanted him out and manoeuvred him to resign, the Pope emeritus replies curtly, “total nonsense!”.

At the book launch, Archbishop Gaenswein said that what the Pope said next should be “taken to heart as new knowledge” about how he sees his resignation and his role as Pope emeritus. “The Pope is not super human,” Benedict says in the book. “If he resigns, he keeps the responsibilities in an inner sense but not the role. In this respect, the papacy lost nothing from its size, even if the humanity of the office emerges perhaps more clearly.”

Stressing that he is “in contact daily” with Benedict XVI, Archbishop Gaenswein said he could only stress such comments to be “authentic.” He added that another passage about this same topic was also “somehow new and distinctive and especially illuminating.”

He referred to when Benedict recounts his desertion as a conscripted member of the Nazi Youth in 1945 at the age of 17, and Benedict’s admitted astonishment that he just “decided to go home” despite the risk of being shot.

Archbishop Gaenswein said when he read that, it felt like a “déjà vu” experience, a “hidden key” that helped explain his resignation. “He was so certain of this, like a sleepwalker against 1,000 aggressors, and in the summer of 2012, a second time, and calmly ‘decided to go home.’” 

Moving on to Pope Francis, the German prelate stressed in his presentation that Benedict had “absolutely not” expected Jorge Mario Bergoglio to become Pope, but was very glad he “spoke on one side with God and on the other side with the people.”

Furthermore, Archbishop Gaenswein said Benedict speaks about seeing “no breach anywhere” between him and Francis — “new accents, yes, but no contradictions”, a man of “practical reform”. Benedict also sees Francis as correcting his own Petrine ministry by being someone “who is used to always being with people.” Perhaps, Benedict confesses, “I was actually not with the people enough.”

He marveled at Benedict’s “astounding measure of self-criticism” coupled with “some self-irony”. He also recounted Benedict’s reflections on the Second Vatican Council, his completely non-political nature, and his weakness in judging character. And even he, it seems, was unaware that Benedict has had poor vision in his left eye since an eye operation in 1994. “He never made a fuss about it. The half-blind pope! Who knew?!”

“Benedict XVI never became so human for many people like he does in this last book – in his great strengths and his miniscule weaknesses and disabilities,” Archbishop Gaenswein said. “In a certain sense, this book achieves in an unspectacular casual way a final deconstruction of his old image with friend and foe.”

And like so many who know him well, he alluded to the striking innocence of the Pope Emeritus who “more than once in his answers” appears to be “as innocent as a child” with a “disarming meekness”  — a child “who always wanted to go home ‘where it will be so lovely to be again, like it was at our home.”

Here below is the full text of Archbishop Gaenswein's talk:

Book Launch

Benedict XVI: Last Testament

With Peter Seewald

Droemer, Munich 2016

(Munich, September 12, 2016)


The Last Amen

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Exactly ten years ago today - at exactly this hour – Pope Benedict XVI gave the speech of the century in Regensburg at his old Alma Mater when he quoted a dialogue of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II and an educated Persian on Christianity, Islam, and the truth from 1391. Retrospectively, the speech seems prophetic to some today, although it also caused an initial uproar in the Islamic world for which the western journalists mocked him from then on as the “professor pope.”

Indeed today the Catholic Church still celebrates - as it did ten years ago - the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary. It is a commemoration of the victory of the Christian armies of Europe in the battle of Vienna where she stopped the Ottoman takeover of the western world on September 12, 1683 during the Papacy of Pope Innocent XI.

“On the Feast of Mary’s Name, summer says amen” one said in Catholic Germany, especially in the country, where I come from and grew up and where the 12th of September has also had a very practical juridical importance for a long time. It was the end of the harvest and as of today, the poor of the surrounding areas were therefore allowed to pick the remaining grain from the harvested fields.

And perhaps this last aspect is an almost providential reason for this gathering, where I have the honor to introduce Peter Seewald’s book, Last Testament with Benedict XVI, whom I have served since 2003 as his private secretary and who after his resignation very personally revised this book.

Now an initial clarification may be helpful here. This Final Testament is not some aggressive “hard talk” in the style of the prominent BBC series, and Peter Seewald did not at all try to journalistically “grill” Benedict XVI as it is so delightfully called in the Anglo-Saxon media world today. Instead the book contains accounts of friendly conversations before and after the Pope’s resignation in an intensive inquiry of memories where two very different, though Bavarian souls through and through – I’m allowed to say that as someone who comes from the Black Forest – find common ground in inflection and heart. Peter Seewald already asked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger the big questions twenty years ago for Salt of the Earth and God and the World as well as Pope Benedict XVI for Light of the World eight years ago. Joining these significant conversations is a new volume of conversations with a selection of curious questions that Seewald himself still had. These questions were in a field that seemed to be already harvested. This field is the biography of Joseph “Benedict” Ratzinger where Seewald has been working for years but has clearly struggled to continue.

Besides a variation of already known details about his life, the answers of the Papa Emeritus are therefore surprising due to a very distinct and new intimacy taking the reader with. There is also an almost blunt way of speech in this book - like if we would experience here something from the mouth of the retired Pope about the big mouth of his adversary, Hans Küng. Or, especially today here on the Munich Salvatorplatz, we would hear from the former Archbishop of Munich and Freising how he speaks without a filter of the “people of Munich and their little megalomania,” which according to his opinion they indeed “have.” Or where we suddenly unexpectedly read in another sequence of the premarital-born mother of Benedict XVI, whom they both discuss frankly.

This casual tone provides this volume with an occasional almost enchanting fluency and mirth where it frequently says in brackets before Benedict’s answers: “Takes a deep breath,” “breaths deeply,” “grins,” “laughs,” “laughs out loud,” “laughs amusingly,” “laughs hard” or “the Pope roars with laughter” – for example, on Seewald’s question whether Joseph Ratzinger then in the time of the council really went “carousing” through Roman Trastevere with the Theological Commission.

Thus, it touches us even more that we read once - on page 61 – unexpectedly in parentheses, “the Pope cries,” before the old man speaks out about that evening hour of February 28, 2013 when he hovered over the chimes of all the bells of Rome in the white helicopter and floated away to Castel Gandolfo towards the twilight of his life. Then, “I knew,” he said, that in that moment “of hovering over and hearing the bells of Rome ring at the same time, I knew then that I may give thanks and that the prevailing mood is gratitude. That has moved me very much.”

On that flight, I sat next to him and was deeply shocked myself, as everyone knows who followed this send-off on the screen. And I know that he, as opposed to myself, did not cry at that moment, if I am allowed to disclose that here, and I myself still have the bells of Rome beneath us in my ear from that fateful flight before we landed at his beloved Castel Gandolfo where he said farewell one last time as the Pope on the balcony of the Papal palace with a “Buona sera” to the people on the square and to all the Catholics of the world.

Yet I must honestly confess that at certain places in the reading, I could be moved to tears when I read in these accounts again and again what a passionate walker and hiker the old Pope was in his time. “I always walked well,” he said at a certain point. “I hiked a lot,” he said at another. I bear in mind - above all today - how the fervent hiker came to always take smaller steps from day to day. After the last several months, nobody had to show me the positive significance of his resignation from his extremely difficult office. Because I see it every day with my own eyes, what no book can explain to my mind.

Does this volume depict a new image of Pope Benedict XVI the person to the readers?

Here I may and must take myself out of course because I keep him, as I said, in mind every day, and on almost any day I could conduct new “last testaments” with him. Seewald’s anecdote-rich background conversations are for me just decoration. However, the public perception of Benedict XVI the person nevertheless will be enriched by many surprising and revealing facets – and indeed the good Bavarian “chatting” conversation tone. In more than one respect, this book supplements and corrects the acquaintance of many readers with the first pontificate of the third millennium in a casual, yet perhaps decisive way.

Here in this book is firstly the nexus of roots of the reasons and motives and the exact circumstances of Benedict’s puzzling resignation. Secondly, his relationship to his successor, Francis. Thirdly, his personal point of view on the different crises and “scandals” of his papacy and not least, the profoundly human dimension of probably the last of the western Monarchs at the top of the Catholic Church. To him, power never meant anything, and he described the “happiest time” of his life as those twelve months or so after his ordination on June 29, 1951 when he worked for a year as a young parochial vicar at Sacred Blood Parish in Munich.

So to begin with the first one:

Peter Seewald never asked the Holy Father the well-known Quo vadis question – that legendary “where are you going?” question just as Christ asked Peter when the prince of the apostles and predecessor of all popes fled the burning capital, which the emperor Nero set on fire, across the Via Appia. Seewald also did not ask about that passage from Benedict’s inauguration homily on April 24, 2005, where the newly elected Pope asked the faithful to “Pray for me that I may not flee from the wolves!”

Here we see why. The questions would never have fit anywhere. For the Papa emeritus makes it clear time and again: it was not an escape, Rome didn’t burn, no wolves howled under his window and his house was in good order when he gave the baton back into the hands of the College of Cardinals.

Or in his own words: “I am convinced that it was not fleeing, certainly not from practical pressure, which was not there. You can never leave if it is running away. You may never yield to coercion. You may not flee in the moment of the storm, but must withstand. You cannot step back if nobody demands it. And nobody has demanded it in my day. Nobody. It was clear to me that I had to do it and that this was the right moment. It was a complete surprise for everyone.”

The doctor had told him he was no longer allowed to fly across the Atlantic. Because of the Football World Cup, the next World Youth Day was pushed up from 2014 to 2013. Otherwise he would have tried to hang on until 2014. “But I knew: I can’t do it anymore.” And all other “things were completely settled in February 2013.” He saw then that the time had come “to disengage from the large crowds of people and adjourn into this greater intimacy.”

It was, he further says, “however not an inner flight from the demand of the faith, which leads the people to the cross. The step is not a flight but another way to remain faithful to my ministry.”

Did he regret the resignation even for just a minute?

The answer is vehement: “No. No, no. I see that it was right every day.” There was no aspect that he had not considered. If anything, everything only got better even than he could have planned! Hence this too: “I cannot see myself as a failure. I did my ministry for eight years.”

And what about the many conspiracy theories - Seewald wanted to know - which never wanted to be silenced after his resignation. Extortion? Conspiracy? The Papa emeritus only had one answer to them, curtly answered, “Total nonsense!” – Truly, this remains to be learned from his actions and to be taken to heart as new knowledge: “The Pope is not super human. If he resigns, he keeps the responsibilities in an inner sense but not the role. In this respect, the papacy lost nothing from its size, even if the humanity of the office emerges perhaps more clearly.”

As I said, since I stay in contact daily with Benedict XVI, all of these things were not new and I can only emphasizes it as authentic. Personally, I must however say that another passage appeared to me in this context somehow new and distinctive and especially illuminating, even if it appears in a totally other place in the book.

“End of April, beginning of May 1945,” Seewald reminds him of a statement from the memories of Joseph Ratzinger from 1998, where it said, “I decided to go home.” That sounded terse. Joseph Ratzinger was 17 years old in 1945 and conscripted at one of the anti-aircraft sites in the vicinity of his home. “In reality, it was desertion,” Seewald reminded him, “which was punishable by death. Were you not aware of that?”

His answer: “Looking back, I am astonished about that. I knew that guards were there and that one would be immediately shot and that it could only actually end badly. Why I still so unconcernedly went home, I can no longer explain the degree of naivety I had reached.

But it ended well and not badly! And here, I must confess, a kind of Deja-vu experience befell upon me when I read this, yet in a inverse sense, which posed the question of whether in this defining life-saving experience of Joseph Ratzinger’s youth there is also a hidden key for which to be searched to explain his spectacular step at the end of life. He was so certain of this like a sleepwalker against 1000 aggressors and many good reasons in the summer of 2012 a second time and calmly “decided to go home.”

Here I come to my second point. What did the global public learn about the relationship of Papa Emeritus to his successor, Francis?

First: he had absolutely not envisaged Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The Archbishop of Buenos Aires was “a big surprise.” He had no notion of his successor at all. As he saw after the election however – on the television in Castel Gandolfo – how the new pope “spoke on one side with God and on the other side with the people. I was really glad to see that. And happy.” And what did he say about Francis appearing on the Loggia all in white without the red Mozzetta, the traditional cape of the popes until then? “He did not want to have the Mozzetta. That did not concern me at all.” But “this aspect of warmth, of very personal affection, I have previously (of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires) not experienced as such. That was a surprise for me!”

And is he satisfied with the papacy of Francis up to this point? He answered straightforwardly, “Yes, there is suddenly a new freshness in the Church, a new joy, a new charisma that addresses the people, which is something beautiful. Many are thankful that the new pope now approaches them in a new style. The pope is the pope, it doesn’t matter who it is.” With his manner, he has “absolutely no problem. On the contrary, I find it good, yes. “ To his own pontificate he sees “no breach anywhere.” He sees “new accents yes, but no contradictions. He is a man of practical reform. And that is the courage with which he addresses problems and searches for solutions.”

And still more: in some respect he sees himself and his Petrine ministry through his successor as also corrected, as he openly acknowledged. For instance, “through the direct affection for the people. That is very important. He is definitely a man of reflection. And a thoughtful person, but at the same time someone who is used to always being with people. And perhaps I was actually not with the people enough.”

One finds an astounding measure of self-criticism – flavored with some self- irony – within the memories that Peter Seewald recalls in him and also the capability of having almost child-like joy up to an old age. At the Council for example, in which he participated as a young and promising advisor of Cardinal Frings from Cologne, and about the reform of the Council in which he “now still delights,” he admitted however unconditionally: “We thought then overly theological and did not consider, what public image these things would have,” and there “were also many destructions and delusions.” In those days, he saw himself after all as a progressive. Others thought he was a free mason, who became “repeatedly denigrated.” Why? “Because I was just incapable or something. And naturally also heretical and so on.”

Actually, he is also frequently astonished by himself, and his “naivety,” as he calls it, and about “the brazenness with which I then – at the time of the council – spoke,” who also now describes himself – answering Seewald’s unbelieving and surprised question – as a “true fan of John XXIII” and his “total unconventionality.”

As Archbishop of Munich and Freising, he had stopped with the usual bicycle riding because he “dared to be not so unconventional.” He was never one who crawled to the bigwigs and bullied the underlings. He never crawled and crawled for nobody. On the contrary, in his almost proverbial innocence he often encouraged and protected his enemies and “non-friends” like perhaps Hans Küng or Cardinal Kasper as well. If he had resigned a week later, his Swabian Cardinal colleage – because he was soon approaching the age limit for a cardinal’s possible participation in the papal election – would not have been able to participate in the election! Indeed such thoughts, like all the tactical and strategic power games were foreign to him his whole life long. “Everyone knew that I did not do politics,” he once said, “and that inhibits enmity. You know that he is not dangerous.”

Now he writes homilies for Sundays for four, five, sometimes eight or nine people in his “little monastery” even though he used to speak in front of thousands. It is all the same for him. The mocking language of the “professor pope” however was clearly more of a compliment to him than defamatory, perhaps from his inability to also think cynically. Because “I am really more of a professor- someone who ponders and considers intellectual things. I wanted to be a real professor for life.” That he was and still remained: a German university professor, who enjoyed imitating voices like Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Swiss German and wrote down all of his countless speeches and works until the end with pencil in a self developed ultra-shorthand handwriting in order to be able to keep up with the speed of his thoughts. And even in times of crises at night, he never let that rob him of his seven to eight hours of necessary sleep, not even his siesta, which he has been used to taking since 1963 – since his Roman Council years – as someone who above all enjoyed sitting at his desk very much and whose indispensable instrument to birthing his profound thoughts was a comfortable sofa. Quote: “I always need a sofa. And absolute quiet if possible.”

“The political meaning” of his Regensburg speech and its international uproar was something, which he openly admits in this tranquility, that he simply “did not assess properly.” The great thinker and writer frequently had a great impact that was often unintended like a wunderkind.

When he arrived in Rome on March 1, 1982 to take over as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he could hardly speak Italian and did not have time for an Italian language course. “I learned Italian only by conversation. That also continued to be my handicap of course.” As in the beginning, he reverted at the end – at his resignation address – to Latin, which he commands brilliantly even today.

Frankly he admits with a certain caution and timidity that his ability to judge other people’s character is not his strength. He often “was very careful and cautious because,” as he says, “I have often experienced the limits of other people’s and my own judgment of other’s characters.”

In September 1991, the non-smoker and non-drinker suffered a brain hemorrhage. “Now I can’t do it anymore,” he told John Paul II thereafter, who then categorically rejected his resignation. “’91 to ’93 were difficult, burdensome years,” he said laconically. In 1994, he had an embolism as well and after that, he had a yellow speck on his retina. Since then, he has seen very poorly with his left eye years before his election to become successor of Peter. He never made a fuss about it. The half-blind pope! Who knew?!

Perhaps that is why Benedict XVI never became so human for many people like he does in this last book – in his great strengths and his miniscule weaknesses and disabilities. He never laughed so much in his other interview books. And never cried.

I had to read the proofs often, and I kind of read the book once more one night at the end. There were many pages that I had could have almost repeated from memory.

Do we find perhaps his testament or a last correction of his testament in these last statements of Benedict XVI? Not really. His testament as Pope is found in the nine volumes of the Insegnamenti, which he bequeathed from his papacy above all in his books on Jesus that he “simply had to write because the Church is finished if we don’t know Jesus anymore.” And we find some testamentary insights in Salt of the Earth, God and the World, and Light of the World, which Peter Seewald wrote down.

In a certain sense, this book achieves in an unspectacular casual way a final deconstruction of his old image with friend and foe. He does not admit anywhere that the interviewer puts him on a pedestal. He stubbornly balks at a draft of a monument of himself, and he is amused by every attempt of his own canonization during his lifetime that he in the kindest way as only he can, sabotages. Or - historically and critically said – he demythologizes himself again and again, even towards Peter Seewald.

In these conversations’ realm of trust, Seewald questions him sometimes as curious as a child questions his grandfather. Of course, the very erudite cleric himself seems here more than once in his answers to be as innocent as a child, who sat for a long time on the papal throne puzzled and inscrutable. He was like a child of the Holy Spirit, who between two brilliant analyses could speak so naturally about how much he could delight in games “like ‘Parcheesi’ and such things,” when he for so long “needed a strong soul to digest all of the filth,” which came into his sight as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. As a big child of God with a disarming meekness, who was yearning like St. Augustine longed to attain ultimately in that “constant,” as it says in Psalm 105, “seek his face constantly” – and as a child who always wanted to go home “where it will be so lovely to be again like it was at our home.”

But also as a subtle and quiet smiling man from a distant age, he reveals himself here from a “quasi prehistoric time,” as he himself half-ironically noted. Despite his superior and awakened intelligence and formation, he does not resemble, even from afar, a power-loving person who would love to be bigger than he really is or a scary high-inquisitor at all like he is often distortedly misrepresented by his “non-friends.”

Personally, I must confess, the readings of this testament made me recall more than once the melancholic image from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince – if you allow me to borrow this from the French pilot and poet of the sky – and I myself have to laugh about this: a papal little prince in red shoes (in the shoes of the fisher!). From a distant star as a fallen messenger from heaven/the sky for our time, although I know from the upmost closeness probably better than anyone else that neither Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger nor Benedict XVI is by no means taken up in this poetic figure.

That should be enough.

I would like to conclude with the farming wisdom of the day from the beginning of this introduction, “On the Feast of Mary’s Name, summer says amen.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for your attention

(Archbishop Georg Gänswein, September 12, 2016)

Translated from the German by Richard Andrew Krema

Photo: Peter Seewald