Reflections on Benedict XVI | An
Interview with Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ
Reflections on Benedict XVI | An
Interview with Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ
These are Father Joseph Fessio’s answers to a series of questions posed by
IgnatiusInsight.com's Valerie Schmalz about Pope Benedict XVI. They were answered on April 21, 2005,
before Father Fessio got on
an airplane to fly to Rome for the formal installation of Pope Benedict XVI.
You have a long-standing relationship with Pope
Benedict XVI. Can you describe when you first met him?
Father Fessio: I first
met Fr. Joseph Ratzinger when I arrived in Regensburg, (then West Germany) in the
fall of 1972. I began my doctoral studies there and he was my doctoral director.
How that happened is a story in itself. I had begun my theological
studies in France at the Jesuit Theologate in Lyons. There I was befriended by
Fr. Henri de Lubac, S.J., a wonderful man of the Church and a renowned
theologian. When the time came for me to decide upon the subject for a doctorate
I asked his advice. He immediately told me that I should do my doctorate on Fr.
Hans Urs von Balthasar whom he considered one of the greatest theologians of the
era, if not all time. When I asked him where I should do it he immediately said,
“Go to Regensburg and do it under Fr. Joseph Ratzinger; he’s a fine
young theologian.” Fr. de Lubac graciously wrote to Fr. Ratzinger on my
behalf and Fr. Ratzinger who was not accepting many new graduate students since
he had so many already, accepted Fr. de Lubac’s recommendation.
Joseph Ratzinger was then as he is now, a very quiet and gracious person, always
willing to listen; but when he speaks, he speaks with great clarity and depth of
understanding. Even then one felt a presence because of his goodness, his
openness, and his wisdom.
How has your relationship
continued through the years?
Father Fessio: The doctoral
students of Cardinal Ratzinger once they had received their doctorates, found a
Schulerkreis (or student circle) that had yearly meetings. Those meetings were
usually two to three days long, held at a monastery, and had a specific
theological topic and one or two invited speakers. We celebrated Mass together,
ate together, listened to lectures and discussed them together. In the evenings,
we would often sit around a table and have conversation accompanied by glasses of
In the period 1987-1989, four priests, working with the
then Cardinal Ratzinger, planned and established the Association de Lubac, Speyr,
von Balthasar whose main work was a house of formation in Rome called Casa
Balthasar. The four priests were Fr. Jacques Servais, S.J. another Jesuit who
remains rector of Casa Balthasar, Fr. Mark Ouellet who is now the Cardinal
Archbishop of Quebec, Fr. Christoph Schönborn, OP who is now the Cardinal
Archbishop of Vienna and myself. (Jesuits are by rule required neither to seek
nor to accept ecclesiastical preferment. Fr. Servais and I did not seek any nor
were any offered us!) Once Casa Balthasar was established, in 1989, we all met
once a year to review the progress and plan the coming year. This gave us an
opportunity to spend some time with Cardinal Ratzinger who would come to Casa
Balthasar for a meeting, dinner and recreation after dinner. I also had the
occasion to visit him in his apartment or in his office a number of times
throughout the years.
How did you choose to publish his
works and why did he choose Ignatius Press to publish so many of his works in
Father Fessio: Ignatius Press was begun in 1978, with
our first books published in 1979. The original intent was to make available in
English the works of the great contemporary Catholic theologians of Europe. We
began with Louis Bouyer and Hans Urs von Balthasar. We soon added Cardinal
Ratzinger to our list of authors. He very graciously accepted Ignatius Press as
his English language publisher.
What is the impact of Urs von Balthasar on the new pope?
Father Fessio: The reason Fr. de Lubac
directed me towards Fr. Ratzinger to do my dissertation on von Balthasar was that
Fr. Ratzinger was both a personal friend and a student of the works of von
Balthasar. Certainly von Balthasar has had a profound effect on Pope Benedict
just as he has on any one who has spent time studying his massive and rich
Which of his works would you recommend to those
wondering about the direction of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy?
Father Fessio: For those who would like an idea of the direction of this new papacy, I
would recommend starting with The Ratzinger Report. It was an interview he gave
to Vittorio Messori in 1985. Cardinal Ratzinger comments very openly there on the
strength and weaknesses of the Church at that time. Not too much has changed
except for the increase in enthusiasm generated by the vibrant papacy of John
Paul II; the major challenges remain.
What is Pope Benedict XVI like as a person? What about his reputation as an “enforcer” ?
Father Fessio: As a person, Pope Benedict is courteous, kind, gracious, soft-spoken, with
an ever-present sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. I’ve never heard
him express anger or raise his voice. He listens very attentively to people and
while clear and firm in his expression of the truths of the Catholic Faith, he
always speaks or writes with profound courtesy and respect. He has a reputation
as an enforcer because he had that task assigned to him. Even in treating
dissident theologians, he was always open and fair, thorough and objective.
Although there are still lingering complaints about the “secrecy” of
the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, there is simply no basis for
that. The Congregation has worked with complete transparency. I can’t think
of anyone in the Vatican who has been more open to being interviewed or being
questioned on any topic than Cardinal Ratzinger. Of course, when he is obliged to
tell someone who considers himself a Catholic of good standing that what that
person is teaching or advocating is incompatible with Catholic truth, that is
often not well received. In trying to explain the hostility toward Cardinal
Ratzinger, I can only think that it is a projection of the anger of those who are
being corrected upon the one who has to administer the correction.
Comparisons will be inevitable with Pope John Paul II. Would you venture
a comparison and a few thoughts on the relationship between then-Cardinal
Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II?
Father Fessio: Certainly Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II were the closest of
collaborators. Pope John Paul II brought Cardinal Ratzinger to Rome in 1981 to
lead the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and he stayed there until he
was elected Pope in 2005. No other prefect of a Vatican congregation has stayed
so long in the same position. It was customary that Ratzinger would see the Holy
Father once a week to discuss whatever matters were important at that time.
They both have “charisma” but of different sorts. Pope John Paul
II was an actor on the world’s stage, very outgoing and with a personal
magnetism that was palpable. But Pope Benedict, while quieter and more serene in
his demeanor, also has a warmth and a presence which all those who have come into
contact with him have remarked. I think that John Paul II, especially in his
prophetic role, proclaimed Christ to the whole world. Pope Benedict will do the
same but I believe he will turn his attention more towards the Church hierarchy.
Just as St. Benedict through his monasteries penetrated and informed a rising
Christian civilization in Europe, Pope Benedict will focus on the celebration of
the Holy Eucharist, on solemn and properly celebrated liturgies, so that the
Church herself will be better able to go forth into the world and be a light to
Why do you think Cardinal Ratzinger was chosen
so quickly as pope?
Father Fessio: I can only speculate on why Benedict was chosen so quickly but I do think
that the following elements had a role to play. In the synod which elected John
Paul II in 1978, all or virtually all of the cardinals hand ample opportunity to
get to know each other during the four years of the Second Vatican Council which
ran from 1962-1965. Therefore they had a much better personal knowledge of their
peers. However, with the expansion of the College of Cardinals, and with the
emphasis on new cardinals in far-flung parts of the world, I think it’s
true that going into the conclave most of the cardinals did not know most of the
other cardinals. In such an important decision, I doubt that anyone, especially
someone with experience in administration, would want to elect someone who was
not well known to him. Since cardinals get to know each other when they come
together, and that’s normally done in Rome, obviously cardinals who are
living in Rome or near Rome, and those visiting often in Rome such as those in
Italy and in Western Europe would know each other better. They’d also have
more access to each other’s writings. For these reasons I think that the
most likely candidates were in those groups.
But Cardinal Ratzinger was
certainly the best known of the cardinals. He was older and he had published many
books, spoken around the world, and acted in a very public way as Prefect of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Divine Faith. He was also extremely
respected even by those who disagreed with him. So, while there was much suspense
during the conclave, now that the choice has been made, it almost seems like it
was a necessity. Despite the fact that there were cardinals with wonderful
qualifications, there really was no one that had his depth of knowledge and
experience, including experience with the Curial offices of the Vatican.
Critics have said that Benedict XVI is “backward
looking” instead of “forward looking” and that he is at heart
opposed to the Second Vatican Council. How would you respond to that
Father Fessio: Every Pope, and every Catholic, must be both
backward-looking and forward-looking. The truths of the Catholic Church are
God’s message entrusted to fallible human beings by God Himself through his
Son Jesus Christ. Our task is to receive that message and contemplate it,
appropriate it, explain it, defend it and then pass it on intact. John Paul II
did that. Cardinal Ratzinger did that, as Prefect of the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith, and I have no doubt that Pope Benedict XVI will do the
same. As for the Vatican Council, Pope Benedict was a theological peritus or
advisor for the Council and was very influential at the Council; he’s one
of its architects. And he made it very clear in his first public statement as
pope the day after he was elected that he fully supports the Second Vatican
Council. He says powerfully: “I too declare, as I start in the service that
is proper to the successor to Peter, wish to affirm with force my decided will to
pursue to the commitment to enact [exsecutionem] Vatican Council II, in the wake
of my predecessors and in faithful continuity with the millennia-old tradition of
the Church [duorum milium annorum].” This is a statement typical of
Cardinal Ratzinger. He affirms in unmistakable terms that he is a pope of the
Council. But he also says that he is going to pursue its implementation. The
implication is that the Council has not been or at least has not been fully
implemented yet. Further, he affirms he will implement the Council in continuity
with the tradition. A clear statement that he does not read the Council as a
break with tradition but as an extension of tradition.
those wondering about the spiritual life of the new pope, do you have any
insights? Does he have any particular devotions to Mary, any other saints?
Father Fessio: The Cardinal was born on Holy Saturday, and was brought by
his parents to the parish church and baptized at the Easter Vigil Mass. So he was
born both naturally and supernaturally in the midst of the great Paschal Mystery
of the Church. I’ve heard him say very candidly that his life has been
liturgical from the beginning; that he always feels nourished by the celebration
of the Mass and the praying of the Divine Office. He admired his fellow
theologian von Balthasar for promoting kniende Theologie (kneeling
theology) and his works could not have been produced by a man who was not a man
of deep personal prayer. His devotions are Catholic devotions, to the saints, but
particularly to St. Joseph his patron, and of course to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Do you know what his favorite foods are? What is his
Father Fessio: I don’t know what his favorite foods
are but Mozart is his favorite composer. While he leads a simple life, he’s
a Bavarian who enjoys a good meal, and he does love to listen to classical music.
He also plays the piano.
Do you have any personal stories
about the new pope you can share with us?
Father Fessio: There are many
stories I could tell but let one suffice. He was asked by a very skeptical and
agnostic journalist, Peter Seewald for a book-length interview. The cardinal,
generous as always, agreed to this and made himself available to answer all his
questions, even the most hostile ones. After that experience – the results
of which were published as The Salt of the Earth – Peter Seewald
became a Catholic! Later he did another book-length interview which became
God and the World. The man sarcastically called God’s rotweiler or
the panzer kardinal is a man who in real life can touch the hearts of the most
hardened skeptics. He has given his life and all his gifts to the service of the
Lord and the Church. And when he speaks he speaks with a power that comes from
beyond him but that works marvelously through him.
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