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If the interviewee were the Pope

· From Leo XIII to Benedict XVI through Paul VI and John Paul II ·

The following is a translation of an article by Prof. Giovanni Maria Vian, Editor-in-Chief of “L’Osservatore Romano”. It was published in the Italian journal “Vita e pensiero” on 19 January 2011.

The new book of Benedict XVI, an interview by the German journalist Peter Seewald, as was predictable attracted great interest in the international media. Moreover it is above all a publishing triumph with the sale of dozens of editions translated into various languages, while the same number are in the pipeline. Indeed it is not often that a Pope grants interviews. And on this occasion too Joseph Ratzinger confirmed his prowess above all as a first rate communicator.

Actually, without using unlikely strategies which in recent times commentators — on the whole not particularly kind — trouble to recommend to the Holy See’s institutions, and even to the Successor of Peter himself.

On the contrary, Benedict XVI comes across most effectively in this lengthy interview merely by being himself, simple and transparent, surprising only to those who do not know him, just as he is in his speeches and in many other texts, particularly his Homilies.

It is not of course the first time that a Pope uses the literary genre of the interview. To begin with there is the long-ago precedent of the interview with Leo XIII on anti-Semitism, about which Giovanni Miccoli wrote in essays in honour of Giuseppe Alberigo in a collection entitled Cristianesimo nella storia (1996). Published on the front page of Le Figaro of 4 August 1892, the sensational article was by Séverine, the pseudonym of Caroline Rémy.

One of the best known names in French journalism, she introduced herself to the Cardinal Secretary of State, Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, in a letter dated 9 July, as “ a woman who had been Christian and remembers it, in order to love children and to defend the weak”, and as “a socialist who, even if she is not in a state of grace, has kept intact in her fervent heart a profound respect for the faith and the veneration of august old age and imprisoned sovereignty”.

The request was immediately granted and the interview which lasted for seven minutes took place on Sunday 31 July. Although it was revised by the Secretary of State, it did not satisfy the Holy See and raised a storm in the media, but on the political and diplomatic level rather than on the subject of the unusual conversation between the 82-year-old Pontiff and the ardent French journalist.

Paul VI’s meeting on 24 September 1965 with Alberto Cavallari was totally different. He published the conversation in the Corriere della Sera on 3 October, beginning a series of articles that were later collected in the book Il Vaticano che cambia (1966). With an attitude which appeared to the journalist “a precise rejection of the classical monologue of the Popes”, Montini’s typical irony and perspicacity immediately emerged. “I saw a relaxed, spontaneous man, not at all like the thin, tense or even introverted nervous or diplomatic Pope he is usually described as.

“You know we like talking about the Vatican!” the Pope said affably straight away, with a pithy remark. “Today many people seek to understand and study us. There are a great many books on the Holy See and the Council. And you see some are even well written. Yet many people assure you that the Church thinks certain things, without ever having asked the Church what she thinks. Whereas, after all, our opinion ought to count for something on the subject of religion”. Here the Pope paused, amused. Then he continued, smiling no longer.

“But we realize that it is far from easy to understand what is done and what is talked about in the world of the Church. Even the Pope, you know, sometimes has a hard time understanding the contemporary world”. After this informal opening, so candidly human, Paul VI touched on the most important topics of his Pontificate”.

However, the real innovation was Jean Guitton’s book Dialogues avec Paul VI (1967) which started with the evocation of the Platonic dialogues and the memory — “in my mind it is all contemporary”, the French thinker wrote — of the first encounter, on 8 September 1950, between the intellectual and the then Substitute of the Secretariat of State. In that same year the Catholic philosopher had published a book on Our Lady. It was “addressed above all to the deniers, to the rationalists” and “dedicated to our Protestant brothers and sisters”; but it was not favourably received in “certain Roman circles” and was censured by the Vatican Daily. Montini’s comment clearly also expresses the purpose of the Dialogues ( and ultimately that of this new and effective way of communication of the Successors of Peter): “I very much liked his book on the Virgin. Today it is the Virgin who comes close to us again. After the pages of Newman, in his famous letter to Dr Pusey, I believe I have never read such pleasing pages on the Virgin. It is necessary to be able to be both ancient and modern, to speak in accordance with tradition but also in conformity with our sensibility. What is the point of saying what is true if the people of our time do not understand us?”.

Paul VI’s second Successor trod in his footsteps, thanks to two converted journalists and writers (a French man and an Italian), and two Polish philosophers. This led to the publication of “ N’ayez pas peur !” (1982) by André Frossard — who interviewed John Paul II a few weeks after the attempt on 13 May 1981 — and Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), in which Vittorio Messori collected the texts the Pope had written in Polish in answer to a long series of questions.

The idea had been to broadcast a one-hour television interview on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Pontificate (16 October 1993), to be directed by Pupi Avati, but it came to nothing.

Lastly, in that same year the encounters with Józef Tischner and Krzysztof Michalski took place; they later converged in the book Memoria e identità. Conversazioni a cavallo dei millenni (2005). It was published in an Italian translation a few weeks before the Pope’s death; it ends with a meeting in which his private secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, also took part to discuss the attempt. “I think” the Pontiff said, “that it was one of the death throes of the ideologies of tyranny unleashed in the 20th century. The tyranny was by Fascism and Nazism, as well as by Communism. Tyranny motivated by similar arguments also developed here in Italy; the Red Brigades killed innocent and honest people”.

The choice of John Paul II’s second interviewer probably had something to do with the wild success of another of his books, Rapporto sulla fede (1985), translated into 13 languages and in which Messori had set down what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had said in August 1984 in Bressanone. Pope John Paul II summoned him to Rome as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the former Holy Office, on 25 November 1981. Not even the refined theologian — appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising, and created a Cardinal by Paul VI in 1977 when he was 50 — was new to best-sellers: indeed his Einführung in das Christentum ( Introduction to Christianity ), 1968, taken from a series of lessons on the Apostles’ Creed, given in 1967 at the University of Tubingen, sold more than 50,000 copies in a few months, with translations into 23 languages.

It is precisely the literary genre of the interview that suits Ratzinger, ever an intellectual used to exchanges in the university environment and a theologian who speaks to everyone in his works, thanks to “a clear and straightforward language, hence comprehensible to all, even the uninitiated, who are drawn to read them because in them they find answers to the unanswered questions of all time which they were vaguely aware of without actually formulating them for themselves”, Lucetta Scarafia explained in Invito alla lettura (2010) written jointly with Gerhard Müller and Rudolf Voderholzer to explain the Italian edition of his Opera Omnia (Complete Works).

This is especially true in the interviews. Thus after the interview with Messori, which came out 20 years after the end of the Second Vatican Council, it was the turn of the two interviews the Cardinal granted to Seewald. The first, in winter in Rome, on Christianity and the Catholic Church in the 21st century, was published in the book Salz der Erde ( Salt of the Earth, 1996), translated into 19 languages, and the second in Gott und die Welt ( God and the World, 2000), on faith and life in the contemporary world, which was given between 7 and 11 February, in Montecassino and translated into 13 languages.

Prior to his election on 19 April 2005, in less than a day, in the most numerous Conclave ever held, Ratzinger had for almost two years since 2003, been writing a work which he deeply cares about and on which he has continued to work in every spare moment: Jesus of Nazareth , whose first volume, significantly signed with his name and with the name he chose at the moment of his election — was published in 2007 and is now being followed by a second, already finished and whose publication is now imminent. A text without precedent in the history of the papacy, the book is obviously closer to the titles typical of the bibliography of the theologian, but at the same time, with coherence, it fully accepts the challenge posed by the innovative decision to speak to everyone.

Benedict XVI’s last book, Licht der welt ( Light of the World ), is therefore the third interview that Joseph Ratzinger granted to Seewald, between the 26 and 31 July at Castel Gandolfo, where the Pope met the journalist, a fellow citizen, every day to answer with frankness and simplicity all the questions he was asked, excluding none. And the corrections that the person interviewed made to the German text are very few; they serve to explain here and there his thoughts on the topics treated.

These are divided into three parts (the signs of the times, the Pontificate, the perspectives unfolding): the radical and unsought change of direction in the last part of his life, the terrible scandal of the sexual abuse of minors committed by clerics, the global economic and environmental crisis, the pervasive dictatorship of relativism, the appalling situations caused in the world by the spread of drugs and of sex tourism, the irreversibility of the ecumenical commitment taken on by the Catholic Church and her unique relationship with Judaism, the search for exchanges and friendship with Islam and with the other religions, the journeys, the sexuality and the problems of governance, the Last Things, forgotten but which reexamine the final destiny of every human being and of the world.

As innovative as those of Leo XIII, and especially of Paul VI, the interview with Benedict XVI, in the same way as the previous two between Seewald and Cardinal Ratzinger, is striking, especially because of the Pope’s tone of trust and openness, his clear language that seeks to be intelligible to all, not only to Catholics, as he stretches out his hand to all.

“I think that God, if he was going to make a professor Pope in the first place, wanted this element of thoughtfulness and precisely this struggle for the unity of faith and reason to come to the fore”.

And he gently puts first what he truly has most at heart: the question of God. Facing — as Cavallari wrote of Paul VI — even the most difficult and critical themes, “as a man of our time, who does not intend to avoid anything, who has chosen to speak sincerely rejecting easy relations”. In order to serve the truth.

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