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POPE BENEDICT XVI: A Personal Portrait
H.J. Fischer
Crossroad Publishing
Catholicism/Current Events
ISBN: 0824523725

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany was elected to succeed the late Pope John Paul II, among the least surprised Vatican insiders was H.J. Fischer, a journalist who has enjoyed a personal and professional relationship with the new pope for nearly three decades. Unlike so many of the "instant" biographies of Ratzinger that appeared in the weeks following his election to the papacy, Fischer's book was in the works and was nearly completed before the death of Pope John Paul II in April of 2005. As a result, he offers a personal perspective lacking in books by authors who were forced to rely on secondhand, encyclopedic information about the new pope.

Because the book is based largely on Fischer's acquaintance with Ratzinger, there is little information about his early life, which is fine for those of us who care more about his theology and less about where he attended kindergarten. Fischer picks up the story in earnest in 1976, when he first interviewed the then-local theologian who was making a name for himself in ecclesiastical circles. As Ratzinger quickly rose to the positions of bishop, archbishop, cardinal, and dean of the college of cardinals, Fischer, the Vatican correspondent for a German newspaper, kept close tabs on the prelate's career and stayed in contact with him on a regular basis.

All that may lead you to suspect that an author who is also a native German Catholic would have a tough time maintaining his journalistic objectivity in writing about the first German to be elected pope since the sixteenth century (or the eleventh century, if you want to get technical, but I don't). However, Fischer paints a remarkably balanced portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, revealing such seeming paradoxes as his warm sense of humor but often cold personality. In fact, Ratzinger comes across as the embodiment of an array of paradoxes: a theological conservative who spearheads innovative efforts designed to bring the old church into a new millennium; a quiet, thoughtful, and content Bavarian theologian whose colleagues from around the world considered him to be God's choice to lead the church's 1.1 billion adherents through a time of seismic cultural change.

Fischer also examines the new pope's history of conflict with proponents of "liberation theology," a movement that arose in Latin America in the 1970s through which many Catholic clerics took up the cause of the poor and the oppressed against the rich and the powerful. For Ratzinger and many other Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, the problem was not in the cause itself but in the Marxist thought and the highly politicized nature of the movement. He and other conservatives believed the church should find solutions outside the political arena; liberals believed there was no way the church could be effective in Latin America without entering the political fray.

The memory of that conflict could have prevented Ratzinger from rising through the ranks as he did, were it not for his unwavering stance on issues surrounding church doctrine. According to the author, the other cardinals held Ratzinger's interpretation of, and commitment to, doctrinal authority in such high regard that for many, his election to the papacy was a foregone conclusion.

A lover of classical music who is looking forward to meeting Bach and Mozart in heaven, Ratzinger was not so enthusiastic about ascending to the highest position in the Roman Catholic Church. During the papal voting process in April, he "begged God to spare him 'this guillotine'," Fischer writes. It's insights like that that make this biography a much more interesting and personal one than others on the market. If that's what you're looking for, along with a fairly extensive survey of the last thirty years of Catholic thought from a European perspective, then this is the book to buy.

   --- Reviewed by Marcia Ford (misfit@marciaford.com)

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