Presentation of the book of Benedict XVI with Peter Seewal, Light of the World. the Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times
"Light of the World. The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times": the book of Benedict XVI's conversation with Peter Seewald was presented on Tuesday morning, 23 November , at the Press Office of the Holy See. Attending the Press Conference were Mons. George Ganswein, Private Secretary to the Pontiff the publishers of the work in various languages, and the author, as well Fr Giuseppe Costa, SDB, Director of the Vatican Publishing House, and Fr Federico Lombardi, SJ, Director of the Holy See Press Office. The speakers were Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, and Mr Luigi Accattoli, an Italian journalist and writer. After a brief introduction by Fr Lombardi and the addresses of Archbishop Fisichella and Mr Accattoli, about 20 of the journalists present asked questions on behalf of their numerous colleagues. The following is a translation of Archbishop Fisichella's address, which was given in Italian.
Licht der Welt. Light of the world. The Pope's handwriting is unmistakable and the sight of it on the first page of the book [in the original edition] makes a certain impression. In all likelihood he himself chose the title and this is important.
The person interviewed is supposed to have the central role; however, this is not the case here. The title chosen does not permit one to reflect on the figure of the Pope but goes beyond him to the One who, after 2,000 years, still illuminates history because he said that he was the "Light of the world".
In any case the Church appears immediately as the protagonist of these pages. The many questions that make up the conversation serve only to highlight the nature of the Church, her presence in history, the service the Pope is called to carry out and, something that is by no means secondary, the mission that she must still continue to carry out today to be faithful to her Lord.
"We really are in an age in which a new evangelization is needed; in which the one Gospel has to be proclaimed both in its great, enduring rationality and in its power that transcends that rationality, so that it can reenter our thinking and understanding in a new way.... It is important to understand this and so to conceive the Church, not as an organization that is supposed to perform every possible function... but as a living organism that comes from Christ himself" (pp. 136, 137).
In the light of this reference it is easy to perceive the specific objective that marks these years of the Pontificate which have striven to show how it is crucial for the human being today to be able to perceive God's presence in his life in order to respond freely — in fact this entails a continuous emphasis on rationality — to the qualifying question on the meaning of his life.
The sphere of activity that the interview covers is vast. It seems that nothing escapes the curiosity of Peter Seewald who even wishes to enter into the recesses of the Pope's personal life, the great issues that mark the theology of the moment, the different political events that have always accompanied the relations between different countries, and, lastly, the questions that frequently often dominate the public debate.
We have before us a Pope who does not seek to evade any question, who wishes to explain everything in a language that is simple yet profound and who accepts kindly the challenges inherent in so many questions.
However, to reduce the entire interview to a sentence extrapolated from the entirety of Benedict XVI's thought would be an offence to the Pope's intelligence and a gratuitous exploitation of his words.
Rather, what emerges from the overall picture in these pages is the vision of a Church called to be the Light of the world, a sign of the unity of the whole human race — to use a well known expression of the Second Vatican Council — an instrument for understanding the essential of life. Even though she may appear to our eyes to be a Church which gives rise to scandal, which does not want to adapt to current trends, whose teachings seem incomprehensible, a Church which might even allow possible human trains of thought to cloud her holiness.
In any case, on the teaching of the Master, "Light of the world", a city placed on the mountain top to be seen by all. A sign of contradiction whose mission is to keep faith in the Risen Lord alive down the centuries until his return. "We are looking ahead to the coming of Christ... from this perspective, we should live out our faith toward the future" (p. 63).
Lich der Welt is obviously not a book written by Benedict XVI; yet his thought, his worries and his suffering in recent years, his pastoral programme and his expectations for the future are concentrated in it.
The impression one has is that of a Pope who is optimistic about the life of the Church, despite the difficulties that have always accompanied her. "She is growing and thriving, she is quite dynamic. The number of new priests worldwide has increased in recent years, also the number of seminarians" (p. 12).
It is as if to say: the Church cannot be identified in only a fragment of a geographical area; she is a whole that founds, embraces and overcomes every part of the earth.
She is also a Church composed of sinners; yet without minimizing the evil, the Pope rightly affirms "it would lead to a collapse of entire sectors of social life if she were no longer here" (p. 31), since the good she does is before the eyes of all, although people may wish to turn their gaze elsewhere.
Page after page one notes the wish to answer every question clearly. Benedict opens the heart of his daily life, just as he expresses with the proper frankness the topical problems in recent years.
If, on the one hand, he seems to invite us into his apartment, sharing with the reader his daily schedule, on the other he evokes images that describe clearly his state of mind in the past few months: "Yes, it is a great crisis, we have to say that. It was upsetting for all of us. Suddenly so much filth. It was really almost like the crater of a volcano, out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything" (p. 23).
The simple tone of his answers is reinforced by the flexibility of the images that recur frequently, enabling us to understand fully the drama of certain events. Yet, from the calmness of his answers and from the development of his arguments, what clearly emerges is above all the spirituality that is so characteristic a part of his life that it leaves one speechless.
"Even at the moment when it hit me, all I was able to say to the Lord was simply: 'What are you doing with me? Now the responsibility is yours. You must lead me! I can't do it. If you wanted me, then you must also help me!" (p. 4; cf. p. 16). Those who read it surrender. Either one accepts the vision of faith as authentic abandonment in God who takes one wherever he pleases or he lets us indulge in the most improbable interpretations that often characterize gossip and not only among clerics.
The truth, however, is there in these words. If one wishes to understand Benedict XVI, his life and his Pontificate, it is necessary to return to this phrase.
Here the vocation to the priesthood is summed up as a call to the sequela; here is understood the reason for a trajectory that cannot be modified in its vision of the world and of the Church's action; here is seen the perspective through which it is possible to enter into the depth of his thought and the interpretation of some of his actions. There is a German term that sums up all this: Gelassenheit, that is, trusting abandonment usque ad cadaver. It expresses the decisive choice of freedom as a radical self-emptying in order to allow oneself to be moulded and led wherever the Lord pleases. In short, the Pope identifies himself more than anyone else as a "simple beggar before God" (p. 17); Christocentric spirituality, which is frequently recalled, fostered by the broad continuity of the Christian Liturgy (cf. pp.105-106). It allows one to understand Benedict XVI's behaviour.
He himself affirms this, moreover, when in answering the question on a Pope's power, he testifies: "Standing there as a glorious ruler is not part of being Pope, but rather giving witness to the One who was crucified and to the fact that he himself is ready also to exercise his office in this way, in union with him" (p. 9).
In this perspective it becomes almost paradoxical to interpret the successive words that seem to contradict what has just been said whereas instead they place it in its consistent horizon of comprehension: "that Christianity gives joy and breadth is a thread that runs through my whole life" (p. 27). In short, a Pope who continues to be an optimist; not primarily because of the objective dynamism of the Church, brought to the fore by such spiritual force, but above all by virtue of the love that shapes all things and wins over all things (cf. pp. 90-91).
It is an interview that from many aspects becomes a challenge to make a serious examination of conscience inside and outside the Church, so as to attain a real conversion of heart and of mind. The condition of society, ecology, sexuality, economics and finance, the Church herself... are all topics that require a special commitment to ascertain the cultural orientation of the contemporary world and the prospects unfolding for the future.
Benedict XVI does not allow himself to be frightened by the figures of opinion polls, because the truth possesses quite different criteria: "statistics do not suffice as a criterion for morality" (p. 146). He is aware that we are facing : "a poisoning of thought, which in advance leads us into false perspectives" (p. 77), for this reason challenges us to take the necessary way towards the truth (cf. pp. 78-79, in order to be able to give genuine progress to the contemporary world (cf. pp. 42-43).
These pages, however, let the Pope's thought shine through clearly, and some should withdraw from the over hasty descriptions given in the past of an obscurantist hostile to modernity: "It is important for us to try to live Christianity and to think as Christians in such a way that it incorporates what is good and right about modernity" (p. 56) with its breakthroughs and the values it has been able, with difficulty, to attain: "so there are by nature many issues in which, so to speak, morality suits modernity. The modern world, after all, is not built solely out of the negative. If that were the case, it could not exist for long. It bears within itself great moral values, which also come precisely from Christianity, which through Christianity first emerged as values in the consciousness of mankind. Where they are supported — and they must be supported by the Pope — there is agreement in broad areas" (p. 20).
These references enable us to see why the Pope thinks so often of the subject of the new evangelization in order reach those who, in their condition as "children" of modernity, have grasped only some aspects of the phenomenon, not always the most positive, while they have forgotten the necessary search for the truth and especially, the need to direct their life to a unifying and not to an opposing vision (cf. pp 56-57).
This proves to be one of the programmatic tasks that we shall be required to confront: "We must summon fresh energy for tackling the problem of how to announce the Gospel anew in such a way that this world can receive it, and we must muster all of our energies to do this. This is one of the points of the programme that I have received as my task" (p. 130).
Benedict XVI frequently returns in these pages to the relationship between the modern world and Christianity. It is a relationship that cannot and must not be lived on a parallel but must combine correctly faith and reason, individual rights and social responsibilities.
In a word, "putting God in first place again" (p. 63), to contradict a large part of the culture of the past few decades that has aimed to demonstrate "the God hypothesis" (p. 134) as superfluous.
This is the conversion that Benedict XVI asks of Christians and of all those who wish to hear his voice: "I think that our major task now is first of all to bring to light God's priority again. The important thing today is to see that God exists, that God matters to us, and that he answers us. And conversely, that if he is omitted, everything else might be as clever as can be — yet man then loses his dignity and his authentic humanity and, thus, the essential thing breaks down" (p. 65).
This is the task that the Pope has set for his Pontificate and, honestly, it cannot be denied how arduous it appears: "Grasping the drama of the time, holding fast in that drama to the Word of God as the decisive word — and at the same time giving Christianity that simplicity and depth without which it cannot be effective" (p. 66).
Familiarity, confidence, irony, at times sarcasm, but above all simplicity and truth are the characteristic traits of this conversation chosen by Benedict XVI to enable the wider public to share in his thought, in his way of being and in his way of conceiving the mission that has been entrusted to him.
It is not an easy undertaking in this period of communication that all too often tends to underline only a few fragments and leaves the global aspect in the shade.
It is a book to read and to meditate upon in order to understand once again how the Church can be a proclamation of a good news in the world that brings joy and serenity.