THE POPE, the vicar of Christ and the visible head of the Church, is also a human being.

This facet of the papal personal shows in the book-length interview, titled Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Sign of the Times, between Pope Benedict XVI and German journalist Peter Seewald. It tackles sensitive issues facing the Church like the crisis of faith, abuse scandals, contraception, same-sex relationships, and celibacy.

In the book published by Ignatius Press of San Francisco, Seewald tries to penetrate Joseph Ratzinger, in his role as God’s representative on earth.

‘The sign of the times’

Seewald gets to meet the man behind the vestibules of faith in this first part of the book.

“Sign of the Times” is an introduction that narrates the start of Benedict’s assumption to the papacy in 2005.

Ratzinger admits that he did not expect to be elected to the Chair of Peter.

“Actually, I had expected finally to have some peace and quiet. The fact that I suddenly found myself facing this tremendous task was, as everybody knows, a shock for me,” the Pope says. “The responsibility is in fact enormous.”

He recalls the signs that predicted his fate, one of which was his offer to resign as head of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith upon reaching retirement age.

“As my seventy-fifth birthday approached, which is the age limit when one submits one’s resignation, [Pope John Paul II] said to me: ‘You do not have to write the letter at all, for I want to have you to the end,’” the Pope says.

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Further into the interview, Seewald points to the growth of the Church, which now has 1.2 billion members.

“Naturally these statistics are important. They indicate how widespread the Church is and how large this communion is, which encompasses races and peoples, continents, cultures, and people of every kind,” he says.

Addressing the abuse scandal head-on, the Pope says the evil that had crept into the Church should not be downplayed.

“It was really almost like the crater of a volcano, out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything, so that above all the priesthood suddenly seemed to be a place of shame and every priest was under the suspicion of being one like that too,” the Pope says.

On the media coverage of the abuse crisis, he notes: “There was no overlooking the fact that what guided this press campaign was not only a sincere desire for truth, but there was also some pleasure in exposing the Church and, if possible, discrediting her.”

But Pope Benedict says “we must be grateful for every disclosure.”

‘The Pontificate’

In the chapter, “Habemus Papam”, the Pope recalls the astonishing speed by which he was elected as the new Pontiff.

“Seeing the unbelievable now actually happen was really a shock. I was convinced that there were better and younger candidates,” he says.

But like any other clergyman in service to the Lord, he accepted the task given to him.

“Why the Lord settled on me, I had to leave to him. I tried to keep my equanimity, all the while trusting that he would certainly lead me now,” he explains.

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The Supreme Pontiff says there were a number of tasks left unfinished by the benevolent Pope John Paul II, one of which is the stabilization of the Roman Curia, the administrative arm of the Catholic Church.

One success of the Church in the reign of Pope Benedict XVI is the dialogue with the Orthodox Church.

“Catholics and Orthodox both have the same basic structure inherited from the ancient Church, and in that sense it was natural for me to take special pains to foster their encounter,” he says.

Meanwhile, Islam’s stance on violence is also an area for dialogue.

“It became evident that Islam needs to clarify two questions in regard to public dialogue, that is, the questions concerning its relation to violence and its relation to reason,” he explained. “It was an important first step that now there was within Islam itself a realization of the duty and the need to clarify these questions, which has since led to an internal reflection among Muslim scholars, a reflection that has in turn become a theme of dialogue with the Church,” he says.

Later on, the Pope talks about condoms in the prevention of AIDS, but emphasizes that condoms are not the real solution. (see related story on page 3)

“She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality,” he explains.

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‘Where do we go from here’

The book does not shy away from sensitive topics such as abortion and homosexuality in the clergy.

“Homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation,” he says. “Otherwise, celibacy itself would lose its meaning as a renunciation.”

Benedict reaffirms the truth of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, which teaches the unitive and procreative dimensions of marriage in condemning contraception.

“The basic lines of Humanae Vitae are still correct. Finding ways to enable people to live the teaching, on the other hand, is a further question. I think that there will always be core groups of people who are really open to being interiorly convinced and fulfilled by the teaching and who then carry everyone else. We are sinners. But we should not take the failure to live up to this high moral standard as an authoritative objection to the truth,” he says.

Amid great moral questions facing the world today and the increasing secular influence, the Church is hopeful that the world will listen to its message of conversion.

“[W]e really are in an age in which a new evangelization is needed; in which the one gospel has to be proclaimed both in its great, enduring rationality and in its power that transcends rationality, so that it can reenter our thinking and understanding in a new way,” he says. Robin G. Padilla

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