An Interview with Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ

These are Father Joseph Fessio’s answers to a series of questions posed by’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 white wine.

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 English translation?

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 corpus.

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 the nations.

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 charge?

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.

To 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 favorite music?

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.