How does one begin to enter into such a mind as that of Joseph Ratzinger? How does one enter – more importantly – into such a spirituality, one at the same time so simple and yet so profound?

These are large questions: the answer to them has been made accessible by the journalist Peter Seewald, who over the years has developed an impressively perceptive relationship with the once future, and now Emeritus, Pope Benedict, and who has published yet another of his book-length interviews under the title Last Testament: In His Own Words. In it, we are brought into the presence of this modest (Benedict’s own word: he never claims the virtue of humility), wonderfully clear-minded and self-evidently (I would have thought) holy, servant of God.

Two sections of the book seemed to me especially fascinating: the conversation about the origins and development of his relationship with Pope John Paul II (the foundation – increasingly reluctantly accepted by Cardinal Ratzinger himself – of the rest of his life); and the account that emerges earlier of his attitude, as a young academic, towards the Second Vatican Council, an attitude at first enthusiastic but then increasingly critical of the direction the whole juggernaut was taking.

His excitement at what was unfolding in Rome in the early years is vividly and engagingly remembered. He was “a real fan” (Seewald’s expression, amusedly accepted by Benedict) of Pope John XXIII. He remembers it as he encountered it at the time, this extraordinary world that was assembling before his eyes: “Simply the universality of Catholics, the diverse polyphony, as people from all parts of the world encounter each other, as everybody is united in the same episcopate, can speak with each other, and find a way forward with each other. Then the encounters with great figures, to see Lubac once, even to speak with him, Daniélou, Congar, all the greats, that’s extraordinarily exciting for me…”

Not only to see them, but to know them. Perhaps the greatest of them all was Henri de Lubac, considered then to be a progressive (as indeed was the young Ratzinger) but who was to become one of the great bastions on which the resistance to the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” was built.

As Benedict explains, “at that time progressive did not mean that you were breaking out of the faith, but that you wanted to understand it better, and more accurately, how it lives from its origins. I was of the opinion then that that was what we all wanted. Famous progressives like Lubac, Daniélou, etc thought likewise. The change of mood was indeed already noticeable by the second year of the Council, but it only began to loom clearly with the passing of the years.”

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