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June 2017

Last Testament: In His Own Words

By Pope Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Pages: 288

Price: $24

Review Author: Stephen J. Kovacs

Last Testament is the first and only volume in history wherein a former pope reflects on his life and pontificate. This autobiographical interview with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, conducted by German journalist Peter Seewald in the days just before and shortly after Benedict’s 2013 resignation, gives an intimate look into the Holy Father’s thoughts, feelings, and memories at the end of a lifetime of service to God.

Seewald previously completed three other book-length interviews with Ratzinger/Benedict — Salt of the Earth (1997), God and the World (2002), and Light of the World (2010) — and also wrote his biography, Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait (2008). Given this long-standing relationship with his subject, Seewald’s latest interview with Benedict is candid, informal, and lighthearted. The two men have an excellent rapport, and their conversations are filled with humor and frankness, which makes for pleasant reading. The experience is further enhanced by mention in brackets of Pope Benedict’s unspoken reactions and movements, such as when he laughs at an amusing question or remark, cries when recalling the affection shown to him on the day of his resignation, and even playfully mimics an offensive gesture his aunt used to make at Nazi officers.

Although the book is unique in its context and perspective, the chapters covering Benedict’s life up to his papacy do not contain entirely new information. In fact, Seewald frequently bases his questions on information already published in Benedict’s memoirs, Milestones: Memoirs, 1927-1977 (1998). Part of Salt of the Earth also addresses Benedict’s life story. Nevertheless, Last Testament still provides wonderful reflections on the Emeritus Pope’s youth, studies, early priesthood, theological career, tenure as cardinal-archbishop of Munich and Freising, and work as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Of particular interest are Benedict’s recollections of his involvement in the Second Vatican Council, in which he served as peritus to Josef Cardinal Frings of Cologne. He discusses in detail his impressions of Vatican II while it took place, immediately afterward, and in the present day. His initial optimism faded once he saw subsequent problematic interpretations, but he remains firmly convinced that the Council was necessary and a blessing for the Church.

Highlights of the book are the chapters on Benedict’s pontificate, resignation, and life in retirement at Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in the Vatican. He discloses that his election as pope felt like a “guillotine,” especially since he did not expect to be chosen at age 78. Yet Benedict knew he had an “inner duty” to accept and that God would give him the needed grace. Due to his advanced age, he realized his pontificate would be short, so he dismissed any plans for a complex pastoral program to concentrate instead on teaching the faith, which he acknowledges to be his special ability.

The Emeritus Pope’s assessment of his papacy is fascinating to read, as he freely admits both his strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. He is remarkably forthright in defending his handling of the sexual-abuse crisis in the Church, and he also expresses satisfaction with his efforts to reform the Vatican Bank. Regarding the infamous “gay lobby” within the Vatican, Benedict says that such a network did exist, but he claims it included only four or five individuals and that he disbanded it. Other topics discussed include the “Williamson affair” involving the Society of St. Pius X, which he confesses was an embarrassment; ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, which he believes generally went well but can only go so far; and the “Vatileaks” scandal, which he contends was a minor incident compared to the media reports. Benedict recounts high points in his papacy, such as the World Youth Days he attended, but notes that some duties were difficult, his least favorite being the political visits. He has nothing but praise for his successor, and he even argues that Pope Francis is better at reaching out to people and has more courage in facing problems.

Pope Benedict is most candid in discussing his resignation. He makes clear how thoroughly and prayerfully he thought out his decision to step down, and he has no regrets and is very much at peace. Contrary to popular assertions, Benedict did not resign due to mounting scandal or subversion within the Roman Curia. Quite simply, he knew he no longer had the strength to carry out his responsibilities, but he could not repeat St. John Paul II’s unique mission to undergo a period of weakness and suffering in the chair of St. Peter. To resign was to accept his limitations for the good of the Church, not to run away from his calling. As Benedict states, “I do not abandon the cross.”

Perhaps the greatest value of Last Testament is the window it provides into the spirituality of Pope Benedict XVI, which is most plainly revealed in the discussion of his current life. One might expect this renowned theologian and religious leader to have an exalted and unrelatable spiritual life, but the opposite is the case. Two words best describe his piety: simple and humble. To this day, he seeks to better understand the Scriptures and deepen his relationship with the Lord, whom he affectionately refers to as “the loving God.” He denies ever having mystical experiences, and he explains that he has never undergone a total dark night of the soul. He has often struggled with the problem of evil and how God can allow so much of it; at such moments he holds fast to his faith to sustain him. He stands before death with some trepidation, yet he looks forward to being reunited with his loved ones and seeing God face to face. Whether the judgment of the Church will ever concur, Pope Benedict modestly insists, “I am an entirely average Christian.”

Numbering My Days: How the Liturgical Calendar Rearranged My Life

By Chene Heady

Publisher: Ignatius Press

Pages: 224

Price: $16.95

Review Author: Elizabeth Hanink

Chene Heady sensed a certain lack in his life, a particular loss of direction and peace, and he decided to reorient his days according to the liturgical calendar of the Church. This is not a new approach; Heady, a writer published in this magazine, mentions John Keble’s The Christian Year (1827), which reflects the structure of the Anglican liturgical year in poetry. And it is a wonderful idea: to “connect the glories of eternity with the mundane matters of daily life.” As Keble, a leader of the Oxford Movement, pleaded to God, “Help us, this and every day, / to live more nearly as we pray.”

Every day for a year, Heady wrote a short meditation with the idea that at the end he would see if such consciousness of daily readings and prayers made a difference in his perception of his life and actions. Most of the days that made it into the book are Sundays, major feasts, and, for some reason, Wednesdays. Because Heady is a young college professor with a family, most of the meditations mention how all the scheduled readings mesh with these aspects of his life. Such small entries containing funny family stories make for light reading, and yet Heady has, like most of us, real struggles trying to align his life more closely with the Gospel.

Two areas of doubt that plague him are whether to have a second child and whether to buy a more comfortable house, surely quandaries many couples face. By the end of the year, we learn the outcome of one of these debates. By giving us a peek into the decision-making, Heady reveals not so much about how the cyclical readings came to bear on events but more about how they didn’t. For what is inspiring about this book is the way Heady, a convert, turned to the Church as a guide and source of wisdom, not the extent to which he actually followed Church teachings.

Not all of us can bleed all over the page about our troubles, but the book’s lack of real joy and real angst is notable. So is the very real sense that while the Mass readings form the backbone of this collection, they do not yet undergird the goals of Heady’s life. Is this criticism too harsh? Maybe. None of us truly knows the interior struggles of another. And, of course, we are all sinners. I have had long periods when I haven’t even thought about daily readings, much less tried to live them, so for Heady to be consistent for a whole year is praiseworthy. But having lived many years in the same milieus of academia and family life, I found many of his reported “problems” superficial, really the result of careerism.

I don’t doubt that Heady is a good, hardworking man. Laboring in fast-food restaurants for years while studying for a graduate degree is proof enough of his constancy, and surely he was steadfast with this book project. But you simply cannot live an authentic Catholic life with the sort of dual loyalty in which he seems trapped. Regardless of our station, there are always real costs to practicing the faith. And the cost is usually greater than boredom and alienation (although Heady’s recounting of a conversation about gourmet coffee is quite funny, if that is as bad as it gets, he’s very lucky). Being truly open to life often means more children than are compatible with a two-career household. Being truly generous means giving not our extra but our widow’s mite. And about our houses: Maybe asking ourselves if a truly poor person would feel welcome in our home is a better guide to God’s will than what colleagues in the department might think. Heady has, in this book, one toe in the water. Now it is time to dive in headfirst.

Continuing Bonds with the Dead: Parental Grief and Nineteenth-Century American Authors

By Harold K. Bush

Publisher: University of Alabama Press

Pages: 237

Price: $49.95

Review Author: Barbara E. Rose

Harold K. Bush in Continuing Bonds with the Dead shows how parental grief propelled five 19th-century American authors to produce some of the great books of their time. Bush selects five authors — Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, W.D. Howells, Mark Twain, and W.E.B. Du Bois — and displays how immense suffering over a child’s death was channeled into their work. Each artist’s literary output, after a crucial juncture, evinces a “continuing bond” with the deceased child.

Bush samples from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s plentiful writings to reveal the mourning of a hopeful Christian. Of Stowe’s seven born children, she outlived three. Bush identifies a turning point for Stowe the author in 1849, when her son Charley died of cholera before age two. Stowe voices the basic Christian belief that God is able to redeem tragedy for His glory. She accepts the Lord’s discipline; in fact, she calls the process of sanctification after loss “improving the affliction.” Stowe writes that Charley’s death provided her with “one more great lesson of humanity which must needs be learned to attain perfection.” Her grief leaves her with “compassion for the sorrowful, especially for mothers who are separated from their children.”

Charley’s death was a crucial factor in Stowe’s decision to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). “My heart was bursting with the anguish excited by the cruelty and injustice our nation was showing to the slave,” she recalls, “and praying God to let me do a little and to cause my cry for them to be heard.” Aside from her consequential novel, Stowe wrote a lengthy tract, “On the Ministration of Departed Spirits in the World,” which highlights “our ministry to survivors continuing after entering our eternal reward.”

Stowe experienced grief again when her oldest son, Henry, a college student at Dartmouth, drowned in 1857. Henry’s death propelled Stowe’s “minor masterpiece” The Minister’s Wooing (1859), which, in addition to slavery, explores the Calvinist view of salvation. Within the novel’s drama, a slave woman comforts a bereaved mother, telling her to look upon Jesus and the scene at the Cross: “He knows all about mothers’ hearts,” she says, invoking Mary as the model sorrowing mother. Stowe deliberately contrasts “warmhearted human feelings” with the chilly logic of preachers such as her notoriously anti-Catholic father, Lyman Beecher.

Bush contrasts Stowe’s spiritual approach to grief with Mark Twain’s struggles 40 years later. Aside from Twain’s own opinions and beliefs, cultural changes moved many Americans away from religious frameworks of grief. The experience of death, writes Bush, shifted from a “religious, sentimental and intimate event to a much more scientific and business-oriented transaction.” In Stowe’s milieu, the primary purpose of the Christian funeral was to worship God, and the congregation understood itself to be “the future dead.” In Twain’s time, “dependence on God is called into open question, promises of Scripture are doubted,” Darwin makes his impact, and death is domesticated by modern funeral practices. Collective social rituals of mourning fall from favor: “Mourning dress disappears; tears and crying are not considered proper; the illusion of happiness and ‘letting go’ becomes predominant; familiarity with funeral rites and customs greatly diminishes.” The duration and relative security of life allowed many to forget God, and the booming business of life insurance, adds Bush, “replaced divine providence.”

Tragedy befell Twain in 1896. He waited in Great Britain for the arrival of two of his grown daughters, Susy and Jean. Before they set sail, Susy fell ill with meningitis. He would not see her again. Summarizing the magnitude of the sudden loss of a favorite daughter, Twain wrote soon after, “It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunderstroke like that and live.” According to Bush, the mourning Twain’s letters “often ask theological questions,” in contrast to his well-known bias against the Bible and religion. In any case, he turned toward nihilism and the skepticism of the emergent “secular age.” Twain and his wife, Livy, “lacked a faith community in which to find solace and theological explanation.” Twain’s sister-in-law, observing this, wrote a letter expressing her sorrow that “Livy refuses to be comforted.” It is strange, she wrote, that Livy “cannot feel that Susy is hers just as much as ever. But that Susy was translated just a little before herself. I thank God always for my precious faith.”

Twain’s “continuing bond” with Susy served as a major motivating factor in his writing and public career and, per Bush, “seems to have enhanced Twain’s sympathy for the downtrodden.” The loss of his daughter “exacerbated Twain’s sense of moral outrage,” inspiring “some of the finest social criticism of his long career.” Twain’s essay “The Philippine Incident” (1900) exemplifies his brilliant critique of American empire and, Bush observes, “deserves to be regarded as one of Mark Twain’s lasting achievements in the years after his daughter’s death.” Twain blasted “the collateral damage of empire, especially the resulting civilian casualties, but also the profound grief it engenders upon the dead soldiers’ and civilians’ survivors.” (N.B.: Now-forgotten U.S. adventurism in the Philippines resulted in 4,000 American soldiers dead, most by disease. Filipino casualties are estimated at about 34,000 military and 200,000 civilians, plus one million indirect deaths due to a cholera epidemic.) Bush sees Twain’s “powerful social conscience” as the “truest legacy of his lost daughter.”

Bush treats readers to sympathetic portrayals and interesting anecdotes of his other three subjects as well. Lincoln’s 11-year-old son died of typhoid just months before the Civil War battles of Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg, the sheer size and violence of which “shocked the president as they did the Union at large.” Lincoln’s grief was “majestically illustrated” in his Gettysburg speech and second inaugural address. W.D. Howells lost a grown daughter who was a gifted poet. The tragedy transformed Howells and also influenced “the shape of American literature going forward,” says Bush, via Howells’s career as a writer and editor of many great young writers. W.E.B. Du Bois left behind scant personal writing or letters about the death of his only son, but Bush argues that he channeled his grief into representing “the traumas of a people,” seeing the lynching victim always as someone else’s child. Redemption and spiritual themes run throughout his work.

Contemporary grief counseling favors “continuing-bonds theory,” wherein survivors continue to be motivated and inspired by their beloved dead, especially in cases of deceased children. With a “continuing bond,” parents feel themselves to be closer to God, with the child as a link, and their emotional outcomes are positive, more hopeful, perhaps even generative. This appears to be another area in which a Christian spiritual approach meshes with the latest social science. Harold K. Bush demonstrates the profound consequences in American literary history of a kind of redemptive work that emerges from the worst grief.

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