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Pope Benedict XVI: "We Have a Positive Idea to Offer"

In an exclusive interview with German media conducted last week, Pope Benedict XVI addressed issues of marriage and family, world peace and intercultural dialogue as well as the future of the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI in his German television interview

Pope Benedict XVI's interview with broadcasters Bayerische Rundfunk, Deutsche Welle, ZDF and Vatican Radio was held at his summer residence at Castelgandolfo on Aug. 5, 2006. The interview was conducted in German and translated and authorized by the Vatican.

Gerhard Fuchs (Bayerische Rundfunk): Your next trip will be to Bavaria. During preparations for the trip your personnel said you are nostalgic for your homeland. What are the issues you'll be speaking about during the visit and is the concept of "homeland" one of the values you intend touching on, in particular?

Benedict XVI: Of course. The purpose of the visit is precisely because I want to see again the places where I grew up, the people who touched and shaped my life. I want to thank these people. Naturally I also want to express a message that goes beyond my country, just as my ministry calls me to do. I simply let the liturgical recurrences suggest the themes to me. The basic theme is that we have to rediscover God, not just any God, but the God that has a human face, because when we see Jesus Christ we see God. Starting from this point we must find the way to meet each other in the family, among generations, and then among cultures and peoples as well. We must find the way to reconciliation and to peaceful coexistence in this world, the ways that lead to the future. We won't find these ways leading to the future if we don't receive light from above. So I didn't choose very specific themes, but rather, it is the liturgy that leads me to express the basic message of faith which naturally finds its place in everyday reality where we want to search, above all, for cooperation among peoples and possible ways that can lead us to reconciliation and peace.

Thomas Bellut (ZDF): As pope you are responsible for the Church throughout the world. But, clearly, your visit focuses attention on the situation of Catholics in Germany as well. All observers say there's a positive atmosphere, partly thanks to your appointment as pope. But, obviously, the old problems are still around. Just to quote a few examples: fewer churchgoers, fewer baptisms, and especially less Church influence on the life of society. How do you see the present situation of the Catholic Church in Germany?

I'd say, first of all, that Germany is part of the West, with its own characteristic coloring obviously, and that in the western world today we are experiencing a wave of new and drastic enlightenment or secularization, whatever you like to call it. It's become more difficult to believe because the world in which we find ourselves is completely made up of ourselves and God, so to speak, doesn't appear directly anymore. We don't drink from the source anymore, but from the vessel which is offered to us already full, and so on. Humanity has rebuilt the world by itself and finding God inside this world has become more difficult. This is not specific to Germany: it's something that's valid throughout the world, especially in the West. Then again, today the West is being strongly influenced by other cultures in which the original religious element is very powerful. These cultures are horrified when they experience the West's coldness towards God. This "presence of the sacred" in other cultures, even if often veiled, touches the western world again; it touches us at the crossroads of so many cultures. The quest for "something bigger" wells up again from the depths of western people and in Germany. We see how in young people there's the search for something "more," we see how the religious phenomenon is returning, as they say. Even if it's a search that's rather indefinite. But with all this the Church is present once more and faith is offered as the answer. I think that this visit, like the visit to Cologne, is an opportunity because we can see that believing is beautiful, that the joy of a huge universal community possesses a transcendental strength, that behind this belief lies something important and that together with the new searching movements there are also new outlets for the faith that lead us from one to the other and that are also positive for society as a whole.

Eberhard von Gemmingen (Vatican Radio): You were in Cologne for World Youth Day exactly a year ago. You experienced how amazingly willing youth are to welcome others and you personally were very warmly welcomed. Will you be bringing a special message for young people on this next trip?

First of all, I'd say that I am very happy there are young people who want to be together, who want to be together in faith and who want to do something good. The tendency to do good is very strong in young people, just think of the many kinds of volunteer work they do. The commitment of offering your own personal contribution to help the needy of this world is a great thing. One idea might be to encourage them in this sphere: Go ahead! Look for opportunities to do good! The world needs this desire to do good, it needs this commitment! Then another message might be this: the courage to make definitive decisions! Young people are very generous but when they face the risk of a life-long commitment, be it marriage or a priestly vocation, they are afraid. The world is moving dramatically: nowadays I can continually do whatever I want with my life with all its unpredictable future events. By making a definitive decision am I myself not tying up my personal freedom and depriving myself of freedom of movement? Reawaken the courage to make definitive decisions: they are really the only ones that allow us to grow, to move ahead and to reach something great in life. They are the only decisions that do not destroy our freedom but offer to point us in the right direction. Risk making this leap, so to speak, towards the definitive and so embrace life fully: this is something I'd be happy to communicate to them.

Christoph Lanz (Deutsche Welle): A question about the situation regarding foreign politics. Hopes for peace in the Middle East have been dwindling over the past weeks: What do you see as the Holy See's role in relationship to the present situation? What positive influences can you have on the situation, on developments in the Middle East?

Of course we have no political influence and we don't want any political power. But we do want to appeal to all Christians and to all those who feel touched by the words of the Holy See, to help mobilize all the forces that recognize how war is the worst solution for all sides. It brings no good to anyone, not even to the apparent victors. We understand this very well in Europe, after the two world wars. Everyone needs peace. There's a strong Christian community in Lebanon, there are Christians among the Arabs, there are Christians in Israel. Christians throughout the world are committed to helping these countries that are dear to all of us. There are moral forces at work that are ready to help people understand how the only solution is for all of us to live together. These are the forces we want to mobilize: it's up to politicians to find a way to let this happen as soon as possible and, especially, to make it last.

Fuchs: As Bishop of Rome you are the successor of St Peter. How can the ministry of Peter manifest itself fittingly in today's world? And how do you see the tensions and equilibrium between the primacy of the pope, on one hand, and the collegiality of the bishops, on the other?

Of course there is a relationship of tension and equilibrium and, we say, that's the way it has to be. Multiplicity and unity must always find their reciprocal rapport and this relationship must insert itself in ever new ways into the changing situations in the world. We have a new polyphony of cultures nowadays in which Europe is no longer the determining factor. Christians on the various continents are starting to have their own importance, their own characteristics. We must keep learning about this fusion of the different components. We've developed various instruments to help us: the so-called "ad limina visits" of the bishops, which have always taken place. Now they are used much more in order to speak sincerely with all the offices of the Holy See and with me. I speak personally to each bishop. I've already spoken to nearly all the bishops of Africa and with many of the bishops from Asia. Now it's the turn of central Europe, Germany, Switzerland. In these encounters in which the center and the periphery come together in an open exchange of views, I think that the correct reciprocal exchange in this balanced tension grows. We also have other instruments like the synod, the consistory, which I shall be holding regularly and which I would like to develop. Without having a long agenda we can discuss current problems together and look for solutions. Everyone knows that the pope is not an absolute monarch but that he has to personify, you might say, the totality that comes together to listen to Christ. There's a strong awareness that we need a unifying figure that can guarantee independence from political powers and that Christians don't identify too much with nationalism. There's an awareness of the need for a higher and broader figure that can create unity in the dynamic integration of all parties and that can embrace and promote multiplicity. So I believe there's a close bond between the Petrine ministry which is expressed in the desire to develop it further so that it responds both to the Lord's will and to the needs of the times.

Bellut: As the land of the Reformation, Germany is especially marked by the relationships between the different religious confessions. Ecumenical relations is a sensitive area that constantly encounters new problems. What chances do you see of improving relations with the Evangelical Church or what difficulties do you foresee in this relationship?

Maybe it's important to say, first of all, that there are marked differences within the Evangelical Church. If I'm not mistaken, in Germany we have three important communities: Lutherans, Reformed, and Prussian Union. There are also several free Churches (Freikirchen) and within the traditional Churches there are movements like the "confessional Church", and so on. It's a collection of many voices, therefore, with which we have to enter in dialogue searching for unity while respecting the multiplicity of the voices with which we want to collaborate. I believe that the first thing we need to do is to concern ourselves with clarifying, establishing and putting into practice important ethical directives in society, thus guaranteeing a social ethical consistency without which society cannot fulfill its political ends, namely, justice for all, living together in a positive way, and peace. In this sense, I think a lot is already achieved, that we already agree on the common Christian basics before the great moral challenges. Of course, then we have to witness to God in a world that has problems finding Him, as we said, and to make God visible in the human face of Jesus Christ, to offer people access to the source without which our morale becomes sterile and loses its point of reference, to give joy as well because we are not alone in this world. Only in this way joy is born before the greatness of humanity: humanity is not an evolutionary product that turned out badly. We are the image of God. We have to move on these two levels, so to speak: the level of important ethical points of reference and the level that manifests the presence of God, a concrete God, starting from within and working towards them. If we do this and, especially, if in all our single communities we try not to live the faith in a specific fashion but always start from its deepest basics, then maybe we still won't reach external manifestations of unity quickly, but we will mature towards an interior unity that, God willing, one day will bring with it an exterior form of unity too.

Gemmingen: The issue of the family. A month ago you were in Valencia for the World Meeting of Families. Anyone who was listening carefully, as we tried to do at Radio Vatican, noticed how you never mentioned the words "homosexual marriage," you never spoke about abortion, or about contraception. Careful observers thought that was very interesting. Clearly your idea is to go around the world preaching the faith rather than as an "apostle of morality." What are your comments?

Obviously, yes. Actually I should say I had only two opportunities to speak for 20 minutes. And when you have so little time you can't say everything you want to say about "no." Firstly you have to know what we really want, right? Christianity, Catholicism, isn't a collection of prohibitions: it's a positive option. It's very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We've heard so much about what is not allowed that now it's time to say: we have a positive idea to offer, that man and woman are made for each other, that the scale of sexuality, eros, agape, indicates the level of love and it's in this way that marriage develops, first of all, as a joyful and blessing-filled encounter between a man and a woman, and then the family, that guarantees continuity among generations and through which generations are reconciled to each other and even cultures can meet. So, firstly it's important to stress what we want. Secondly, we can also see why we don't want something. I believe we need to see and reflect on the fact that it's not a Catholic invention that man and woman are made for each other, so that humanity can go on living: all cultures know this. As far as abortion is concerned, it's part of the fifth, not the sixth, commandment: "Thou shalt not kill!" We have to presume this is obvious and always stress that the human person begins in the mother's womb and remains a human person until his or her last breath. The human person must always be respected as a human person. But all this is clearer if you say it first in a positive way.

Lanz: My question is linked to that of Father von Gemmingen. Throughout the world believers are waiting for the Catholic Church to answer the most urgent global problems, like AIDS and overpopulation. Why does the Catholic Church pay so much attention to moral issues rather than suggesting concrete solutions to these problems that are so crucial to humanity, in Africa, for example?

So that's the problem: do we really pay so much attention to moral issues? I think -- I am more and more convinced after my conversations with the African bishops -- that the basic question, if we want to move ahead in this field, is about education, formation. Progress becomes true progress only if it serves the human person and if the human person grows: not only in terms of his or her technical power, but also in his or her moral awareness. I believe that the real problem of our historical moment lies in the imbalance between the incredibly fast growth of our technical power and that of our moral capacity, which has not grown in proportion. That's why the formation of the human person is the true recipe, the key to it all, I would say, and this is what the Church proposes. Briefly speaking, this formation has a dual dimension: of course we have to learn, acquire knowledge, ability, know-how, as they say. In this sense Europe, and in the last decades America, have done a lot, and that's important. But if we only teach know-how, if we only teach how to build and to use machines, and how to use contraceptives, then we shouldn't be surprised when we find ourselves facing wars and AIDS epidemics. Because we need two dimensions: simultaneously we need the formation of the heart, if I can express myself in this way, with which the human person acquires points of reference and learns how to use the techniques correctly. And that's what we try to do. Throughout Africa and in many countries in Asia, we have a vast network of every level of school where people can learn, form a true conscience and acquire professional ability which gives them autonomy and freedom. But in these schools we try to communicate more than know-how, rather to form human beings capable of reconciliation, who know that we must build and not destroy and who have the necessary references to be able to live together. In much of Africa, relations between Christians and Muslims are exemplary. The bishops have formed common commissions together with the Muslims to try and create peace in situations of conflict. This schools network, dedicated to human learning and formation, is very important. It's completed by a network of hospitals and assistance centers that reach even the most remote villages. In many areas, following the destruction of war, the Church is the only structure that remains intact. This is a fact! We offer treatment, treatment to AIDS victims too, and we offer education, helping to establish good relationships with others. So I think we should correct that image that sees the Church as spreading severe "no's." We work a lot in Africa so that the various dimensions of formation can be integrated and so that it becomes possible to overcome violence and epidemics, that includes malaria and tuberculosis as well.

Fuchs: Christianity has spread around the world starting from Europe. Now many people think that the future of the Church is to be found in other continents. Is that true? Or, in other words, what is the future of Christianity in Europe, where it looks like it's being reduced to the private affair of a minority?

I'd like to introduce a few subtleties. It's true, as we know, that Christianity began in the Near East. And for a long time its main development continued there. Then it spread in Asia, much more than what we think today after the changes brought about by Islam. Precisely for this reason its axis moved noticeably towards the West and Europe. Europe -- we're proud and pleased to say so --further developed Christianity in its broader intellectual and cultural dimensions. But I think it's important to remind ourselves about the eastern Christians because there's the present danger of them emigrating, these Christians who have always been an important minority living in a fruitful relationship with the surrounding reality. There's a great danger that these places where Christianity had its origins will be left without Christians. I think we need to help them a lot so that they can stay. But getting back to your question: Europe definitely became the center of Christianity and its missionary movement. Today, other continents and other cultures play with equal importance in the concert of world history. In this way the number of voices in the Church grows, and this is a good thing. It's good that different temperaments can express themselves, the special gifts of Africa, Asia and America, Latin America in particular. Of course, they are all touched not only by the word of Christianity, but by the secular message of this world that carries to other continents the disruptive forces we have already experienced. All the bishops from different parts of the world say: we still need Europe, even if Europe is only a part of a greater whole. We still carry the responsibility that come from our experiences, from the science and technology that was developed here, from our liturgical experience, to our traditions, the ecumenical experiences we have accumulated: all this is very important for the other continents too. So it's important that today we don't give up, feeling sorry for ourselves and saying: "Look at us, we just a minority, let's at least try and preserve our small number!" We have to keep our dynamism alive, open relationships of exchange, so that new strength for us comes from there. Today there are Indian and African priests in Europe, even in Canada, where many African priests work in a very interesting way. There's this reciprocal give and take. But if we receive more in the future we also need to continue giving with courage and with growing dynamism.

Bellut: This is a subject that's already been touched partially. When it comes to important political or scientific decisions, modern society doesn't base itself on Christian values and the Church, according to research, is considered as simply a warning voice or a controlling voice. Shouldn't the Church come out of this defensive position and assume a more positive attitude with regard to the building of the future?

I'd say that, in any case, we have to stress better what we want that is positive. And we need to do this, above all, in dialogue with cultures and religions because, as I think I've already said, the African continent, the African spirit and the Asian spirit too, are horrified by the coldness of our rationality. It's important for them to see that's not all we are. On the other hand, it's important that our secular world comes to understand that the Christian faith is not an impediment but a bridge for dialogue with other worlds. It's not right to think that a purely rational culture has an easier approach to other religions just because it's tolerant. To a large extent what's missing is a "religious center-piece" which can act as point of departure and arrival for those who want to enter into a relationship. That's why we must, and we can, show that, precisely because of the new intercultural environment in which we live, pure rationality separated from God is insufficient. We need a wider rationality that sees God in harmony with reason and is aware that the Christian faith that developed in Europe is also a means to bring together reason and culture and to integrate them with action in a single and comprehensive vision. In this sense I believe we have an important task, namely to show that this Word which we possess, isn't part of the trash of history, so to speak, but it's necessary today.

Gemmingen: Let's talk about your travels. You live in the Vatican and maybe it hurts you to be far from people and separated from the world, even in the beautiful surroundings of Castelgandolfo. You'll be turning 80 soon. Do you think that, with God's grace, you'll be able to make many more trips? Do you have any idea of where you'd like to go? To the Holy Land, or Brazil? Do you know already?

To tell the truth I'm not that lonely. Of course there are, you may say, the walls that make it more difficult to get in, but there's also a "pontifical family," lots of visitors every day, especially when I'm in Rome. The bishops come and other people, there are state visits. There are also personalities who want to talk to me personally, and not just about political issues. In this sense there are all kinds of encounters that, thank God, I have continually. And it's also important that the seat of the successor of Peter be a place of encounter, don't you think? From the time of John XXIII onwards, the pendulum began to swing in the other direction too: the popes started going out to visit others. I have to say that I've never felt strong enough to plan many long trips. But where such a trip allows me to communicate a message or where, shall I say, it's in response to a sincere request, I'd like to go -- in the "measure" that's possible for me. Some are already planned: next year there's the meeting of CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Council, in Brazil, and I think that being there is an important step in the context of what Latin America is living so intensely, to strengthen the hope that's so alive in that part of the world. Then I'd like to visit the Holy Land, and I hope to visit it in a time of peace. For the rest, we'll see what Providence has in store for me.

Gemmingen: Austrians also speak German and they are waiting for you at Mariazell.

Yes, it's been agreed. Quite simply I promised them, a little imprudently. I really liked that place and I said: Yes, I'll come back to the Magna Mater Austriae. Of course, this became a promise that I will keep, that I will keep happily.

Gemmingen: I admire you every Wednesday when you hold your General Audience. 50,000 people come. It must be very tiring. How do you manage to hold out?

Yes, the Good Lord gives me the necessary strength. When you see the warm welcome, you're obviously encouraged.

Lanz: You've just said you made a rather imprudent promise. Does that mean that, despite your ministry, despite the many protocols and limitations, you haven't lost your spontaneity?

I try, in any case. As much as things are fixed, I'd like to keep doing some things that are purely personal.

Fuchs: Women are very active in many different areas of the Catholic Church. Shouldn't their contribution become more clearly visible, even in positions of higher responsibility in the Church?

We reflect a lot about this subject, of course. As you know, we believe that our faith and the constitution of the college of the Apostles, obliges us and doesn't allow us to confer priestly ordination on women. But we shouldn't think either that the only role one can have in the Church is that of being a priest. There are lots of tasks and functions in the history of the Church -- starting with the sisters of the Fathers of the Church, up to the middle ages when great women played fundamental roles, up until modern times. Think about Hildegard of Bingen who protested strongly before the bishops and the pope, of Catherine of Siena and Brigit of Sweden. In our own time too women, and we with them, must look for their right place, so to speak. Today they are very present in the departments of the Holy See. But there's a juridical problem: according to Canon Law the power to take legally binding decisions is limited to Sacred Orders. So there are limitations from this point of view but I believe that women themselves, with their energy and strength, with their superiority, with what I'd call their "spiritual power," will know how to make their own space. And we will have to try and listen to God so as not to stand in their way but, on the contrary, to rejoice when the female element achieves the fully effective place in the Church best suited to her, starting with the Mother of God and with Mary Magdalene.

Fuchs: Recently there's been talk of a new fascination with Catholicism. What is the attraction and the future of this ancient institution?

I'd say that the entire pontificate of John Paul II drew people's attention and brought them together. What happened at the time of his death remains something historically very special: how hundreds of thousands of people flowed towards St Peter's Square in an orderly fashion, stood for hours, and while they should have collapsed, they resisted as if moved by an inner strength. Then we relived the experience on the occasion of the inauguration of my pontificate and again in Cologne. It's very beautiful when the experience of community becomes an experience of faith at the same time. When the experience of community doesn't happen just anywhere but that this experience becomes more alive and gives to Catholicism its luminous intensity right there in the places of the faith. Of course, this has to continue in everyday life. The two must go together. On one hand, the great moments during which one feels how good it is to be there, that the Lord is present and that we form a great community reconciled beyond all boundaries. From here we get the impetus to resist during the tiring pilgrimage of everyday existence, to live starting from these bright points and turning towards them, knowing how to invite others to join our pilgrim community. I'd like to take this opportunity to say: I blush when I think of all the preparations that are made for my visit, for everything that people do. My house was freshly painted, a professional school redid the fence. The evangelical professor helped to do the fence. And these are just small details but they're a sign of the many things that are done. I find all of this extraordinary, and I don't think it's for me, but rather a sign of wanting to be part of this faith community and to serve one another. Demonstrating this solidarity means letting ourselves be inspired by the Lord. It's something that touches me and I'd like to express my gratitude with all my heart.

Lanz: You spoke about the experience of community. You'll be coming to Germany for the second time following your election. After World Youth Day and, for different reasons, after the world soccer championships, the atmosphere seems to have changed. The impression is that Germans have become more open to the world, more tolerant and more joyful. What would you still like from us Germans?

I'd say that from the end of the Second World War German society began an inner transformation. The German way of thinking too, which was further reinforced after reunification. We have become more deeply part of world society and, naturally, we have been changed by its mentality. Aspects of the German character which others weren't aware of before, have come to light. Perhaps we were always depicted too much as always very disciplined and reserved, which has some basis in truth. But if we now see better that which everyone is seeing, I think it's lovely: Germans aren't just reserved, punctual and disciplined, they are also spontaneous, happy and hospitable. This is very lovely. This is my hope: that these virtues may continue to grow and that they may last and may receive added impetus from the Christian faith.

Gemmingen: Your predecessor beatified and canonized a huge number of Christians. Some people say even too many. This is my question: beatifications and canonizations only bring something new to the Church when these people are seen as true models. Germany produces relatively few saints and blessed in comparison with other countries. Can anything be done to develop this pastoral sphere so that beatifications and canonizations can give real pastoral fruit?

In the beginning I also thought that the large number of beatifications was almost overwhelming and that perhaps we needed to be more selective; choosing figures that entered our consciousness more clearly. Meanwhile, I decentralized the beatifications in order to make these figures more visible in the specific places they came from. Perhaps a saint from Guatemala doesn't interest us in Germany and vice versa, someone from Altötting is of no interest in Los Angeles, and so on, right? I also think that this decentralization is more in keeping with the collegiality of the episcopate, with its collegial structures, and that it's suitable for stressing how different countries have their own personalities and these are especially effective in these countries. I've also seen how these beatifications in different places touch vast numbers of people and that people say: "At last, this one is one of us!" They pray to him and are inspired. The blessed soul belongs to them and we're happy there are lots of them. And if, gradually, with the development of a global society, we too get to know them, that's wonderful. But it's especially important that multiplicity exists in this field also because it's important that we too in Germany get to know our own figures and are happy for them. Besides this issue there's that of the canonization of greater figures who are examples for the whole Church. I'd say that the individual Episcopal Conferences ought to choose, ought to decide what's best for them, what this person is saying to us, and they should give visibility to people who leave a profound impression, but not too many of them. They can do it through catechesis, preaching, or through the presentation of a film, perhaps. I can imagine some wonderful films. Of course, I only know well the Church Fathers: a film about Augustine, or one on Gregory Nazianzen who was very special, how he continually fled the ever greater responsibilities he was given, and so on. We need to study: there are not only the awful situations we depict in many of our films, there are also wonderful historical figures who are not at all boring and who are very contemporary. We must try not to overload people too much but to give visibility to many figures who are topical and inspirational.

Fuchs: Stories with humor in them too? In 1989 in Munich you were given the Karl Valentin Award. What role does humor play in the life of a pope?

I'm not a man who constantly thinks up jokes. But I think it's very important to be able to see the funny side of life and its joyful dimension and not to take everything too tragically. I'd also say it's necessary for my ministry. A writer once said that angels can fly because they don't take themselves too seriously. Maybe we could also fly a bit if we didn't think we were so important.

Lanz: When you have an important job like yours, Holy Father, you are much observed. Other people talk about you. I was reading and I was struck by what many observers say: that Pope Benedict is different from Cardinal Ratzinger. How do you see yourself, if I may be so bold as to ask?

I've been taken apart various times: in my first phase as professor and in the intermediate phase, during my first phase as cardinal and in the successive phase. Now comes a new division. Of course circumstances and situations and even people influence you because you take on different responsibilities. Let's say that my basic personality and even my basic vision have grown, but in everything that is essential I have remained identical. I'm happy that certain aspects that weren't noticed at first are now coming into the open.

Bellut: Would you say that you like what you do, that it isn't a burden for you?

That would be saying a bit too much, because it really is tiring. But in any case, I try to find joy here too.

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