A close friend of the late Pope emeritus Benedict xvi , and co-author with Msgr Georg Ratzinger of the widely-acclaimed book, “My Brother, the Pope”, Dr Michael Hesemann offers a personal glimpse of the late Pontiff. The interview has been edited for length. The full interview may be found on: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/church/news/2023-01/benedict-xvi-a-model-of-holiness-michael-hesemann-interview.html
As someone who knew him closely, what was Benedict xvi like?
He was the greatest thinker and philosopher of our times, and one of the most pious, saintly priests I ever met. [...] He was a proud Bavarian, with a wonderful sentimental side and love for his homeland, his parents, their traditions [...].
Christmas was always his favorite time of the year, and when you came to the Monastery Mater Ecclesiae, his residence during the last 10 years, during Christmas time, it was decorated like you decorate your home in Bavaria for Christmas. [...]
He had a small, secret passion for everything sweet: his favourite dish was Kaiserschmarrn, a kind of thick pancake, cut into pieces, with raisins and almonds and lots of powdered sugar, and everyone who really knew him and wanted to make him happy brought him handmade Pralines from Regensburg, his home town.
Would you say the Pope Emeritus was misunderstood?
I think of those who call him “God’s Rottweiler.” He was everything but a Rottweiler. When a journalist once interviewed him and asked him if he was “God’s watchdog” as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he replied in his dry, subtle Bavarian humour: “There are also some friendly watchdogs!”
He was so far away from being a strict, resolute prelate but always, even with his biggest opponents, open, kind and friendly … Benedict did not only speak about God’s love and mercy; he practised it. But love and understanding did not mean compromise for him. He never betrayed the truth for just a foul compromise.
His vocation was already evident as a child...
When he was a child, he wanted to become a priest. At that time, there were little toy altars for children, and one day one of his uncles came and brought him one for Christmas. Little Joseph was overwhelmed. His mother started to sew “vestments” for him, so that he, in all seriousness, together with his brother, celebrated Holy Mass in their home. [...]
Why was the College of Cardinals so convinced [Ratzinger] was the person to lead the Church? How did he pick up and expand jpii ’s legacy?
First of all, with John Paul ii , a giant had passed away, the father of a whole generation, who formed the Catholic Church in the 21st century more than any other Pope before. So the cardinals realized that the only functioning solution would be continuity. And who would guarantee more continuity than Ratzinger, his closest co-worker and brilliant theologian? The problem was that Ratzinger did not want anything less than to become Pope. [...]
Actually, his dream was to retire in Regensburg in his beloved Bavaria, stay close to his brother and write some more books. [...] But John Paul ii had asked him to stay in office as long as he was alive. Out of loyalty, Ratzinger agreed with tears in his eyes. John Paul ii made him Dean of the College of Cardinals so that Ratzinger had to deliver the homily in the Opening Mass of the Conclave.
Ratzinger took the opportunity to deliver his spiritual testament, warning of the dictatorship of relativism in our troubled times, but the Cardinals were impressed by the brilliant, crystal-clear analysis and understood: This is the man who sees the problem, names it and offers the solution. This was their final confirmation to vote for Ratzinger. [...]
How would you characterize the Pope Emeritus’ final phase in life?
For him, it was a prolonged pilgrimage to his ultimate goal, the encounter with His and Our Lord. He lived his last decade as “Pope Emeritus” in the constant expectation of this final hour, with his weakening body still on Earth, with his soul already in heaven and with his brilliant mind as an intermediator, an instrument to communicate the heavenly truth to all of us.
We can be sure that this saintly man indeed is in heaven by now and will be our advocate, but also a role model for holiness, a guide and visionary who saw the Church as God intended it to be and whose writings are a lighthouse for coming generations, the guidance our Church needs today more than ever, in these turbulent times in an era of collective confusion. And so instead of mourning, it is time to thank God that he was among us and that we all had the opportunity to rediscover Christianity by his constant inspiration, and so will our children and future generations.
By Deborah Castellano Lubov