A bumper sticker spotted this week on a mini-van emerging from a parking lot of a Catholic Church:
"I love my German Shepherd!" (beneath it, two words: "Benedict Sixteen.")
I wanted to second that emotion! And it's because of this interview, from ten years ago, which reminds me on its every delightful page, of my all-time favorite such book, from 17 centuries ago (correct) --- one of the treasures of the Eastern Church tradition.
Back in the fourth century a simple monk named John Cassian went to visit the so-called "Desert Fathers" - many of them saints, who performed miracles of spiritual understanding in the presence of Cassian and his friend Germanus. Cassian's young friend was positively hostile in his questioning of these saintly men. But his often rude and gratingly persistent questions elicited the most amazing replies!
Cassian's resulting book "The Conferences" was strong meat devoured by the first "Saint Benedict" -- who used it as the basis for his monastic order (the very first in the western tradition of the Church). A thousand years later, the greatest of the theologians, Thomas Aquinas kept a copy of "The Conferences" with him at all times, and "read from it every day."
I thought of my ancient hero John Cassian (and especially of his rude companion Germanus) while reading this -- my new favorite book! Published in German in 1996, these 280 pages comprise an interview in 1995 of then-Cardinal Ratzinger.
The interviewer, an agnostic journalist Peter Seewald, repeatedly asks often-hostile questions of a truly great and (I believe) saintly mind. I love the fact that Ratzinger specifically requested he not see any of the questions in advance. The resultant conversation is astonishingly brilliant and satisfyingly deep!
Alas . . . it is impossible (for me at least) to recapitulate such brilliant thought in fewer words. But to single out just one exchange that appealed to this former journalist, who like Mr. Seewald has since converted to this 2,000 year old faith - mainly because of such brilliant and saintly minds.
Near the end of this book (p. 215) --- in a chapter titled "2000 years of Christian history and still no redemption"--- the German journalist poses a rambling, 250 word question --- in fact really a dozen questions all bundled together. To which the German cardinal gently begins unraveling the bundle, with the most astonishingly focused reply. He deals with each implied question-in-turn - (and in the same order he received them; I am in awe of such a mind!)
Ratzinger's reply begins with a gentle dig at the questioner's inability to focus on `one-thing-at-a-time - saying:
"That is quite a bundle of observations and questions! The basic question (buried in the middle) is, `Has Christianity really brought salvation, has it brought redemption, or hasn't it actually remained fruitless? Hasn't Christianity perhaps by now lost its power?'
Ratzinger then proceeds to point out a distinction lost on many of us - including his interviewer:
"I think we must first say that salvation - the kind that comes from God - is not quantitative (like) the sum of an addition. In (science and) technical discoveries, there is growth, which may proceed in fits and starts, but is nonetheless continuous: The purely quantitative is measurable - one can ascertain whether there is now `more' or `less.'
"But a quantifiable progress in human goodness is impossible. Because each (of us) is new - and in a sense, history begins anew with every man. It is very important to learn this distinction."
Assisting the journalist then (with an endearingly gentle and diplomatic guidance) Ratzinger helps his interviewer re-focus many subsequent questions (which, significantly become ever-more compact).
Eventually Peter Seewald asks a question that helps the reader see in bold relief, the difference between the mind of Ratzinger and that of his predecessor John Paul II (who three times refused to allow Ratzinger to abandon Rome for a more peaceful and secluded retirement in his homeland).
Seewald quotes from "John Paul II's talk to the United Nations" (1995) on the "foundations of a new, world order" -- and his hope for the "third Millennium: `We shall see' said the Pope, `that the tears of this century prepared the ground for a new springtime of the human spirit.' What might be meant by this springtime? A new identity of man?"
Then-Cardinal Ratzinger (ten years away from his own pontificate) replies in a manner that helps us see the principal difference between the world view of the two popes: John Paul II (who philosophically resembles his ideal --Thomas Aquinas) and Benedict Sixteen, (who more closely resembles the original St. Augustine).
Thus, Pope John Paul II (in Ratzinger's words of ten years ago) "does indeed cherish a vision that (the last thousand years of Christianity) - "the `millennium of divisions,' will be followed by the `millennium of unifications.' " The difference is, Ratzinger does NOT see this happening any time soon:
"The emergence of ecumenism at the Second Vatican Council is indeed a sign of a renewed approach to a new unity. It is thus filled with the hope . . . that all the catastrophes of our century, `all its tears,' as the Pope says, will be caught up at the end and turned into a new beginning."
It is good, the future pope said that we have such visions: "This is a vision that inspires and that challenges us to move in this direction. The Pope's untiring activity comes precisely from his visionary power. It would be fatal if we let ourselves be guided by purely negative calculations --- if we didn't allow ourselves to be guided by (such visions) that then give us guidelines and courage for action.
"(However) whether the vision is actually fulfilled is something we must leave entirely in God's hands. At the moment, I do not yet see it approaching."
As a former interviewer, I must add that this interview is quite simply the most amazing (and intellectually pleasurable) that I have ever read.