Praise Pouring in for "Light of the World"

Book Seen as Honest Reflection on Many Issues

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, NOV. 25, 2010 ( Aside from the media cacophony surrounding just one short, though important, passage in the book, plaudits have been coming in thick and fast for «Light in the World,» Peter Seewald’s landmark series of interviews with Benedict XVI.

In comments to ZENIT, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver said the book illustrates the Pope’s «courage and serenity in a very direct way» — especially in confronting the modern, secular world — and that the ideas presented are both «lucid and compelling.»

«The Pope has an uncommon ability to combine brilliant thought with simple clarity and disarming candor, which makes his thinking accessible to any interested reader,» he said. «But the great appeal of this book flows from the personality of the man himself. Reading these pages is like meeting and listening to him personally. He has a deeply attractive presence as a leader.»

Over the course of six one-hour interviews in July, Seewald asked the Pope a wide range of challenging and well-researched questions on a whole gamut of contemporary issues of concern to the Church and the world — from the economic crisis and concerns over the environment, to the crisis of faith and the urgent need for a new evangelization in the West.

As well as the Church’s teaching on condoms and AIDS prevention, subjects also include the true causes of the sex-abuse scandal and prospects for reform, the possible scenarios in which the Pope might consider resigning, the nature of papal infallibility and Petrine authority, ecumenism, Islam, Judaism, and the message of Fatima. The Holy Father also reflects on what was going through his mind when he was elected as well as his daily routine in the apostolic palace.


On almost every major issue of this pontificate to date, the Pope gives open and frank responses, thereby cutting through five years of speculation and second-guessing to reveal just why he has acted on a whole range of issues. «This is a singularly frank interview from a pope, demonstrating an extraordinary level of candor without calculation,» said George Neumayr, editor of Catholic World Report magazine. «That alone will make the book a remarkable historical document of this papacy.»

The Pope explains his reasons for lifting the excommunications on the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, adding that he’d have made an exception for Richard Williamson had he known of Williamson’s history of Holocaust denial. He also discusses an often contentious area of this pontificate: the «fragile» relationship with the Jews and Israel.

He explains his approach to the controversy over the Good Friday prayer of the Traditional Latin Mass that called for the conversion of the Jews, and he stands by his decision last year to declare Pius XII showed heroic virtue, revealing that he ordered an inspection of the unpublished archival records «to be absolutely sure.» He says of Pius «he was one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else.»

He also reflects on his 2006 Regensburg lecture that caused uproar in the Islamic world. Ever since, commentators have wondered if he foresaw the reaction that was to follow. Now we know: he didn’t, but «conceived and delivered the lecture as a strictly academic address, without realizing that people don’t read papal lectures as academic presentations, but as political statements.» Despite this, he notes the good that has inadvertently come from it, namely that the Church and Islam have now «entered into an extensive and vigorous» dialogue.

Other fascinating revelations come to light in the book, in large part thanks to Seewald’s interviewing style: he doesn’t grill the Pope but engages him in polite conversation, giving the Holy Father facts and quotations in order to elicit the best and fullest answers. And the questions are ones many would have liked to ask.

Some of the most fascinating passages are when the Holy Father describes his deep confidence in God’s providence, his own self sacrifice in being Pope, and his deep awareness of God’s presence. «I always sense consolation «from above»,» he says at one point, «and experience the nearness of the Lord while praying, and the beauty of the faith shines forth as I read the Church Fathers – there is a whole concert of consolations.»

A personal glimpse

«It really is a tremendously personal and spiritual book,» said Father Robert Gahl, professor of moral philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, who was particularly struck by the passages on papal infallibility. «It’s beautiful how he distinguishes between the exercise of papal infallibility while being a normal man and being affected by human error despite his best efforts – it’s the first time we’ve had a first person account of how that works at a psychological, spiritual and moral level.»

But of course this isn’t just a portrait of a pope and the events of a pontificate; it’s also a teaching document through which the Holy Father offers his guidance to the Church and the world – explained in the vintage, crystal clear language of Professor Joseph Ratzinger. He discusses, for example, what he calls a «threatening catastrophe» in the world, noting «how enormously man’s power has grown, but what did not grow along with it was his ethical potential.» In response, he calls for a «comprehensive re-examination of basic principles.»

In other chapters, the Pope gives a short catechesis on the meaning of truth, the problems of secularism and relativism, and the Last Things. He tackles the growth of «practical atheism», warning that if it «becomes a general existential position, then freedom no longer has any standards, then everything is possible and permissible.» The answer – and Benedict nearly always tries to provide one – is to try to «bring God back into the center [a] God who knows us, speaks to us, and approaches us and who is then our judge also.»

«Benedict’s critique of secularism and modern ideas of «progress» is the heart of the book for me,» said Archbishop Chaput. «I’ve thought for years that the crisis of the Church in our age is not a lack of resources or plans or ideas, but a lack of faith. Too many people who imagine themselves as «Christians» don’t really believe, or never bother to grow their faith into a mature reality that can withstand the contempt of the world. Benedict names the lack of faith for what it is: the central problem of modern humanity.»

Not enough time

Dr. Pia de Solenni, a moral theologian and commentator, described «Light of the World» as «deep and thoughtful, but easy to read» — a book that «implicitly issues a challenge to the world.» She said that for her the chapters entitled «Dictatorship of Relevance» and «Time for Conversion» were the most thought provoking, and noted how the book confirms the Holy Father as a consummate listener and man of dialogue. But despite being in awe of his intellectual abilities, she wondered if they are able to be digested by everyone. «The response to the condom statement illustrates this perfectly,» she said.
Seewald makes a good point when he writes in the book’s preface that six hours is a long time — yet not long enough to cover more than just a few questions and go into more depth.

But by all accounts, «Light of the World» has served its overall purpose, one that above all gives voice to the Pope’s urgent appeal to the world.

«The message of Benedict XVI,» Seewald writes, «is in the end a dramatic appeal to the Church and the world, to each individual: There is no way we can possibly continue as before, he exclaims. Mankind stands at a crossroads. It is time for reflection. Time for change. Time for conversion. And unwaveringly he [the Pope] maintains: ‘There are so many problems that all have to be solved but that will not all be solved unless God stands in the center and becomes visible again in the world.'»

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ward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at:

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