Last Testament

by Benedict XVI, with Peter Seewald, Bloomsbury, £16.99

The drill instructor surveyed the new recruits. He was expected to turn this pathetic rabble into an efficient fighting force for the Führer. “Who’s holding out for longest,” he bellowed, “you or me?” There was an uncomfortable silence. Then the smallest soldier in the line – a weedy and bookish figure – stepped forward and said: “Us!”

That defiant young man became arguably the most influential Christian theologian of our age and served for eight years as the spiritual leader of a billion souls. He has never lost what he calls “the desire for contradiction”: a willingness to rebel against the dictates of the age, alone if necessary. Joseph Ratzinger contra mundum.

The drill instructor anecdote is just one of many astoundingly fresh and revealing stories in Last Testament. The book is based on interviews with Benedict XVI conducted before and after his resignation by German journalist Peter Seewald. This is therefore a historic document in which for the first time in centuries – perhaps ever – a retired pope evaluates both his own pontificate and his successor’s.

When the book was first announced it didn’t sound all that promising. Seewald and Benedict XVI had already collaborated on three book-length interviews: Salt of the Earth, God and the World and Light of the World. As Benedict’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, put it at the new work’s launch: “These questions were in a field that seemed to be already harvested.” Yet somehow Seewald has gathered in perhaps the finest harvest yet.

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