When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s latest—and, reportedly, final—book appears in the United States on Nov. 15, entitled “Last Testament: In His Own Words,” it will mark the latest in an unprecedented collaboration with publicist Peter Seewald dating back more than 20 years. In a time of transparent off-the-cuff interviews that has characterized the papacy of Pope Francis, it was Benedict XVI who embraced the genre, and whose own witness actually prompted Seewald to convert from his atheistic worldview back to the faith of his youth: the Catholic faith.
Yet, Seewald did not exactly have pious intentions when first contacting then-Cardinal Ratzinger, cardinal prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the early 1990s for a profile in the German equivalent of a Salon-type magazine. Seewald originally intended the interview as a kind of experiment.
Writing in his biography of Pope Benedict, “An Intimate Portrait,” Seewald planned “to leave criticism of Church and faith alone for a while and instead see whether there might be anything in Christianity that was positive and lovely, something of practical use.” For his experiment he looked to his fellow Bavarian, Joseph Ratzinger. The published article from 1993, Seewald’s first interview with the future pope, now appears in the appendix of “Last Testament”.
Upon completion of that first interview, Seewald was sure Cardinal Ratzinger would not want to again grant him another—the profile reflects moreso Seewald’s own ideology of the time than Ratzinger’s testimony to his faith. But something about the cardinal’s demeanor struck the journalist: he found the media portrayal of Ratzinger—the authoritarian theologian, one who had been granted nicknames such as “God’s Rottweiler” (a portrayal Seewald himself took for reality)—completely untrue. Instead, he felt a seismic realization beginning to unfold, one that would both change his life, and something that his future works would emphasize: Joseph Ratzinger’s pursuit of truth in Christ through his teachings “are a cure for the many aberrations of modernity,” Seewald told Orange County Catholic.
What followed has resulted in a series of spiritual smash hits and best sellers, beginning with 1996’s “Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium,” a book-length interview with Seewald and Ratzinger on the riches of living the faith against the currents of the time. “God and the World” followed in 2002, a theological overview of the Catholic faith, and even after his election as Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger continued to speak of the most important matters of faith and living in the world today, as he did in “Light of the World,” Seewald’s 2010 book of interviews with Benedict, with insights that reveal not an out-of-touch pontiff as so often depicted in the media, but someone with a firm grasp of what it means to be Catholic Christian today.
“Being Christian must not become a sort of archaic stratum to which I cling somehow and on which I live to a certain extent alongside of modernity,” Benedict said to Seewald in “Light of the World.” “Christianity is itself something living, something modern, which thoroughly shapes and forms all of my modernity—and in this sense actually embraces it.”
By the time of Pope Benedict’s eight-year pontificate, Peter Seewald had long recommitted to the Catholic Church, thanks in no small part to Benedict himself. “I was now convinced that there are indeed answers that illuminate man’s existence and that can help him on his way,” he writes in “An Intimate Portrait.” And so to avoid drawing attention to his own conversion as a marketing stunt (“Cardinal Converts Communist to Catholic Church”), Seewald privately turned his life back to God. “I did it silently—and secretly rejoiced.”
Also in “Light of the World,” Pope Benedict reveals that indeed if a pope no longer sees himself fit spiritually or physically to continue guiding the universal Church as Successor to Saint Peter, he has a right—a duty, even—to resign. It was something Benedict would oversee himself in February 2013, becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to resign.
“I always knew that for Benedict XVI, the resignation was a real option,” Seewald told Orange County Catholic. But even Seewald was unprepared for the Pope’s timing. “My reaction was: ‘Oh, no, please, no… Not now!’ he said.” He did not expect Benedict’s announcement, which occurred on the World Day of the Sick in 2013, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, and the actual date of his resignation, Feb. 28, 2013, to occur when it did.
“It hit me in two respects,” he continued. “On the one hand, I was very alarmed. Secondly, I was with my wife who was very ill and on the way to the hospital. So it was not an easy situation.”
Seewald knew he had to respond to the one of the most unorthodox moves from a leader in modern times—he had to write. Thanks to his previous work with Benedict, Seewald was granted new interviews with the pontiff right around the time of his resignation. The writer worked on the text for nearly four years before finally releasing it to the public: “Last Testament: In His Own Words.”
What most interested Seewald in writing the new book, he said, was a matter of duty: to “keep accessible and open the important work of Joseph Ratzinger.” Such a contribution threatens to remain under-appreciated, even within the Church. But like a growing number who have found Pope Benedict’s life to have a profound effect on their own, Seewald is convinced we are only beginning to see the fruits of that contribution.
As for Seewald, the faithful who have picked up his works can only be grateful in what his own conversion has done for so many.