Transcript of CS#62: Brennan Pursell Benedict of Bavaria

Transcript of Interview with Brennan Pursell about Benedict of Bavaria. This interview and others like it can be found at

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Benedict of Bavaria is available at The Catholic Company.


Chris Cash:  This is the Catholic Spotlight the podcast where we talk about what is new, cool and exciting in the Catholic marketplace.  I am your host, Chris Cash, Director of e-Commerce from, your source for all your Catholic needs.  Today in the spotlight, we have Brenna Pursell.  This is a new one for us, we are actually interviewing straight from Bavaria.  So if there are any minor sound imperfections, then we are going to blame Skype for having poor connection all the way from Germany.  Brennan, I am really glad to have you on.

Brenna Pursell:  Thank you, Chris, it is a pleasure to be with you.

Chris Cash:  Brennan has recently written a really excellent book on Pope Benedict called Benedict of Bavaria.  Now Brennan, what was it that got you interested in Pope Benedict initially and got you started on journey toward writing this book?

Brenna Pursell:  Well, two main words, you were asking is why I wrote the book.  I wrote it for two reasons, love and disgust.  First of all, I wrote about love…

Chris Cash:  Those are both very strong words.

Brenna Pursell:  I know, right.  Come on, let us get to it.  I wrote out of love for my family, my wife is from Bavaria and that is where the in-laws are, we are raising our children bilingual.  Plus Bavaria was the place that I stumbled into in my 20s and somehow landed in the Benedictine Monastery, then was received in the Rome Catholic Church.  I was raised basically a pagan from California.  Bavaria is just a place that I have absolutely come to love.  I wrote the book I have love for the Catholic Religion, and then out of love for the man himself, for Joseph Ratzinger, for Benedict XVI who is a genius.  Out of disgust, for the media caricatures, especially in the mainstream world corporate media that have dogged not just Cardinal Ratzinger for a couple of decades and then persisted after the election of Benedict XVI.  So I just felt there has got to be something I can do to help people in the United States blow away the fog from the media misperceptions.

Chris Cash:  When did you really get started and how did you go a bout researching this book?

Brenna Pursell:  I got started mentally right there in April 2005 when Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger appeared on the launching there at Saint Peter’s Basilica as the Benedict the XVI.  I was floored, I was so excited.  Actually the Bavarian relatives were visiting because my daughter has just been born.  I mean my house was pandemonium, we were just so excited.  Then the coverage was just so awful.  Then for the rest of 2005, the first batch of books to appear in English, a couple were okay, but others just kept harping on the same old caricatures.  One thing I was wondering, have some of these authors even cracked a book written by just Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict XVI?  Do they know what this man is like?

Then in 2006, he went to Bavaria, Pope Benedict XVI went to Bavaria, made his first apostolic visit.  Then all these people who knew him came forward, published their testimonies, their anecdotes and their personal, private stories in radio and in TV, in little parish newsletters and newspapers.  There is this flood of information, none of this stuff was translated into English.  I thought here is something I can do.  So my parents love Bavaria, they were great research assistants, they gathered all this material, and I found some people myself who knew him personally.  Some of my connections at a monastery where there is a cardinal and an abbot and a friar, all who know him personally very well.  So, I decided I would write this book for the American public that mainly does not have access to this material and it gives a very clear picture of who the man is.

So that is how I did it, and it took about two years to do.  I will finish the answer right here – the amazing thing is that when Pope Benedict visited us in April 2008 is not that I published a book about him about a month or two before he arrived, but the fact that nobody else did.  There was no other up-to-date book about him which came out.  Mine was there and it got all sorts of media attention, and for that I am grateful.

Chris Cash:  Well, we are grateful to add to the media attention for you here a little bit.

Brenna Pursell:  Thanks.

Chris Cash:  So what kind of media mischaracterizations are the most common that you have found and how do you address some of these mischaracterizations in your book?

Brenna Pursell:  Alright, I think we have all heard him.  It is the stupid names, God’s Rottweiler, the German Shepherd, The Grand Inquisitor.

Chris Cash:  The German Shepherd can be kind of affectionate though.

Brenna Pursell:  It can be but it has not really…

Chris Cash:  I think t-shirts that say Benedict is my German Shepherd that…

Brenna Pursell:   Good.  You are right, that is a good sign.  It shows that people are getting off the God’s rottweiler thing and saying he is the shepherd, and he is a German shepherd, and there is nothing wrong in that.  So, yes, it is those kinds of names, and what inspired to write against them is because most of them are just kind of wrong.  Why they are wrong is because they are based on media depictions of him in which they confuse the person with the office.  As prefect for the congregation or the doctrine or the faith for over 20 years, he had to deal with all major crisis and instances of descent, theologians teaching Catholic institutions but not teaching Catholic things anymore.  Sex abuse, crisis, I am here to deal with all of it.  So naturally that position means, if you are in that position, you are a lighting rod and you have to take flack from all sides.  So I think the common perception of the media was that that person in that office was the office, and that is just wrong.  There is just so much more to this person…

Chris Cash:  Plus this is probably the first time that the media has really paid attention in the history of the church to the person in that office so much.

Brenna Pursell:  Yes.  We are talking about the worldwide media.  In Europe, he was in the media frequently while he served in that position.  But in the United States, too, you are right; there was this building perception about him.  Then do you remember the lead up after the passing of John Paul the Great?  Do you remember the lead up to the conclave?

Chris Cash:  Of course, he was considered widely the favorite around the media which meant that he was not going to get it.

Brenna Pursell:  Exactly, and blackballed along the way.  They has all these commenters coming, “Well, the Cardinal was unlike him.  For crying out loud, what would they be thinking?”

Chris Cash:  They were obviously trying to petition the Vatican not to do it.

Brenna Pursell:  I suppose in a certain way, but I would not doubt that some producers thinking that.  But at the same time Chris, we should not launch into one of these media Schulz.  Tempting as it is, it is not really very productive.  So what I was trying to do in the book is clear up the picture and widen the picture and say there is a lot more to this man than meets the media’s gleaming eye.

Chris Cash:  So, once again back to the original question here, what were some of the misperceptions and how do you deal with them in the book?  Obviously there is the God’s rottweiler and the enforcer type misperception.  From your personal experiences of talking to and getting to know who Benedict is in your research, tell us more about the man and who he really is as opposed to the media perception of him.

Brenna Pursell:  I tell you, this question is so much more easier to answer after April 2008 than before because he is who we saw him to be and he is the way we heard him when he came to the United States.  To answer your question, he is a mild, gentle man.  He is a gentle man and a gentle human being.  He speaks from the heart and he is absolutely dedicated to telling the truth.  Even if sometimes do not want to hear it, he is dedicated to telling us the truth.  I think many people now in the United States will just kind of agree with that.

It is amazing Chris, how many times now, just in the last couple of months I will be talking to a priest in my diesis.  In Pennsylvania, they will say, “You know, can I be honest with you Brennan Pursell?  I was really kind of worried after the conclave and I did not know anything about him.  I have not read any of his books.”  I thought, “Oh no, what is this going to lead to?”  But after that visit, I am wondering what if I have been missing, and these are priests telling me this.  So I would not doubt that that is a feeling that is now out there.  A priest who is a friend of mine, my spiritual director actually told me, “So now Brennan, your book is becoming big I-told-you-so.”  “Well, Father, that is not what we want to do.”  But my book is just giving the reader more background, more information, more windows into the personal life of the same Pope that we all saw in April 2008.

Chris Cash:  So, going back historically, he has taken a lot of flack for growing up in Nazi Germany, can you tell us a little bit about who did grew up through the Nazi Germany and how that affected him in his development?

Brenna Pursell:  This is really important in fact, I devoted a couple of chapters to this.  You might want to say it is one of the main arguments of my book because mainly it has been skipped in so many other biographies or contorted.  This is another reason why, especially we in America were more prone to this anti-German slurs and things like that, fact of the matter is that Germany went through a horrible period of time, the Nazi era and dragged in the rest of the world and committed some of the worst crimes against humanity.  You know, especially in the 1950s, 1960s there was this anti-German sentiment around, and with good reason when you think of them, tens of millions of people slaughtered for no reason.  But, the reality is that Joseph Ratzinger was raised in a devout Catholic family and rural southeastern Bavaria, it was a country area with mainly a bunch of farmers.  This region historians had demonstrated was not totally impervious to Nazism but resisted the simple Catholic churchgoers, the people who lived their faith, who prayed together as a family also in the morning and at night.  The people who lived their faith let it mark their lives in every way possible, they were resistant to Nazism.  He grew up with this.

Then just when he turned 14, it was when the war started going.  So as he came to the age of reason, he watched his whole country come under the control of the hideously evil ideology, the ideology we call Nazism.  The fact of the matter is that yes he was enrolled in Hitler Youth, he had to be.  His parents had kept him out long after the legal mandatory deadline.  For them, the choice would have been either his education in minor seminaries that he could pursue his priestly vocation or nothing.  I mean if they kept him out, then they could not educate him.  It got that bad.  He did so briefly, towards the end of the war, in the military services.  But mainly, he was an observer.  He smart enough and young enough to see what was going on.

Then just to wind this up, to get back to the last part of your question, how did it affect him.  My argument in this book is it showed him graphically what evil can do and how seductive evil can be and how banal.  How simple and commonplace and kind of tasteless evil is when it first appears, when it worms its way into our families and into our mentalities and hearts.

Chris Cash:  Well, we are going to take a moment here to hear from our sponsor, and we will be back in just a minute to talk more with Brennan Pursell about Benedict of Bavaria.  This is the Catholic Spotlight.


Chris Cash:  We are back in the Catholic Spotlight with Brennan Pursell, author of Benedict of Bavaria, one of the best books you are going to find out there for going to the real source materials and root materials about who Pope Benedict is and what formed him.

Now, Brennan, what are some of the most unknown facts that you have found about Benedict from his youth, from his childhood and from his time in the office under Pope John Paul II?

Brenna Pursell:  There are a number of them, I will start with the office under John Paul II, under John Paul the Great.  He is funny, he is a very funny man.  He has a great sense of humor.  He is not a joke-teller, he does not really do that.  But he has an ironic sense of things and he sees the humor inherent in a lot of situations.

Chris Cash:  You can see it in his smile when he is talking.

Brenna Pursell:  Exactly, right.  You do, could you not?

Chris Cash:  Absolutely.

Brenna Pursell:  You could see it there, and most people who have met him, who have come forward and told there stories, there are bunches of little examples of this.  I will just give you one that I like to tell a lot.  He was at his simple house in Ragensberg which is a beautiful little town on the Danube.  This was when he was a professor – sorry, this was long after he was a professors.  This was when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, and he was back visiting.  His brother was there and some old former professor or colleagues, and then the neighbor’s cat came over to pay him a visit.  The neighbors had a cat named Chico.  There is a famous book now out about Chico the cat, if you can believe it.  But Chico came over and came over to the Cardinal and wanted to be petted.  So, Cardinal Ratzinger went down and pet cat’s back.  But this time the cat had a present for the Cardinal, laid down a freshly killed mouse right at his feet.  Well, Ratzinger bent over and petted the cat, then picked up the mouse by the tail and carried it inside, then came out saying something like, “The meat is going to be especially fresh tonight.”

It is just little things like that, and that is the way he goes through life.  In interviews with German journalists, they have asked, “How are you putting up with the burdens of this office?  You are in your 80s, how are you doing this?”  He said, “Yes, it is burdensome.  But I try to take it lightly, it is the angels that teach us that our hearts can fly.  Theology teaches that, too, we do not have to be bonded to the earth in our souls.  Even if you have to fly to the moon, you still are under the effects of gravity.  Your body is always being pulled somewhere by somebody.  But in your heart, in your soul, you can fly.  So I try to keep a smile in my lips and see the humor of things because that relieves the way of the burdens.”

Chris Cash:  Now going back to his earlier life before he was taken to the Vatican, what are some of the things that we just do not know about Benedict from his earlier life?

Brenna Pursell:  Well, most people have the impression – and this is true, he is great world renowned intellectual, but then many people then assume that he grew up in a city from well to do parents and was highly well educated.  The fact of the matter is he came from this very, very small town.  It is really villages in Bavaria.  His father was a country constable.  This is a small town cop or maybe he was the only law enforcer in town or maybe had one like junior officer with him.  He grew up in a number of small apartments, usually in the same building as the little police station.

He has three toys growing up.  When he would go on walks with his mother and with his siblings, they would collect dandelions leaves and herbs for the salad that night.  These are humble people.  At Christmastime they would gather sticks and stones, bit of moss and things like that for their own nativity scene that they would build together.  These people were not rich, they were not wealthy.  There was no such thing as Wal-Mart.  This materialism is totally foreign to his upbringing, and this is really important for people to bear in mind.

Chris Cash:  I have always felt that the church chooses a Pope based on a need that is apparent in the church and who they feel is the best person to meet that need at the time.  Do you have some idea about why is it that church needed Cardinal Ratzinger to become Pope at this time?

Brenna Pursell:  Well, I can tell you one thing that Cardinal Sherborne said, this one Austrian Cardinal, he did not talk about the church having a specific need to be met by a specific person.  I think it is good that he did not say that because we have to realize the church is a community of prayer.  It is not a government or a charitable institution or business or anything like that.  The man who is to be the successor of Saint Peter does not have just a function that must be filled.  Yes, he functions, he does many things.  But this is what Cardinal Sherborne said, “The number of us Cardinals who could fill the shoes of John Paul II is extremely limited.  Who are we looking for?  We are looking for the man is completely himself, yet in being completely himself he stands out from all the other, and that is absolutely the case in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in Benedict XVI.”

John Paul the Great was a colossal Pope, Saint John Paul the Great, because I really think that he will go down in history as John Paul the Great.  Benedict XVI however, unlike John Paul II, was well known as a world famous intellectual before he even came to the Papal Office.  He is someone who has probably the highest regard among the Cardinals as someone with a particular vision of what the world needs and what the church needs.  Despite his advanced age, that is the man that the Cardinals picked in under 24 hours.

Chris Cash:  Now a lot of people when they heard Benedict as being elected, they said, “It is just going to be John Paul II book 2.”  How is it that Benedict is really different from the reign of John Paul the Great?

Brenna Pursell:  Look, I think there is something in what these people are saying, there is great consistency from the pontificate of John Paul the Great to Benedict XVI.  What the Cardinals picked in one sense was continuity, real connection, the two met every single week.  Let us not forget under John Paul II, some of these huge projects that he oversaw like the publication of the new Catechism, first in 500 years.  Who was the main editor of that?  Well, Cardinal Ratzinger.  There is phraseology all through that, you can kind of sense Ratzinger’s thoughts in all of that.  The two worked together, they met all the time and they consulted all the time.  So what we are seeing is there is real continuity there.

In terms of the difference, I think we can all see the difference.  Again, the answer to this question is much different, after the Papal visit to America than before.  Before people were asking me, journalists were asking me, “Will he measure up?  Will the crowd like him?  He his following the steps of a superstar celebrity, rock star Pope, how will this shy professor live up?”  I think that most people would agree with me that based on what we saw, what we experienced, what we heard, you could have taken Benedict XVI out of those red shoes and put John Paul the Great into them in April 2008, and you would have gotten the same reaction.  That is because the Pope is greeted by the people who love him because he is Pope, not just because he is Ratzinger or Karol WojtyÅ‚a.  What you are seeing is people’s enthusiasm for being close in the presence of the flicker of Christ, the consecrated successor of Saint Peter.

So I think if we do highlight differences, they will be largely superficial.  You are right, Benedict XVI just does not gesticulate that much, he is more reserved in his manner.  But let us tie this back to the Bavarian mentality, Bavarian identity.  That is normal in his region and in his generation.  So just to wind it up, I think there is just great continuity between the two.  But most of the differences that we could point out are largely superficial.

Chris Cash:  Aside from growing up in Nazi Germany, what were some of the other major influences on how he portrays himself, how he thinks, how he acts as he has risen to the level of Pope?

Brenna Pursell:  I am glad you asked that question because we should never equate Germany and its history and its heritage, especially that of Bavaria, with the Nazi period.  The Nazi period is the aberration in German history.  It is the only time that all portions of German speaking Europe were actually unified, and we know how horrible that was for the world.  Benedict XVI’s background is Bavarian, and Bavaria is a region within the state of Germany today.  It has been an identifiable region, either a dukedom or a kingdom or a principality within Central Europe for well over 1,000 years, maybe 1,500.  The people, the Boyars, the Bavarians, they formed their own people.  They have their own special dialects.  They have their history of being close to Rome, of being really, really Catholic also through the process of reformation.  The region where he came from was the region least likely to be enthused about the Nazis.

So, just to wind up to answer your question, that is why I named the book and wrote the book the way I did.  What I think, what I say, what I argue is that the key to understanding Benedict XVI is to take seriously his Bavarian homeland heritage because that is what he has said.  He said it so many times himself.  He said, “In my vocation I belong to the world, but my heart beats Bavarian.”  I think that is really important for us in American to understand.

Chris Cash:  Now, he has only been Pope for a little over two years now.

Brenna Pursell:  Three.

Chris Cash:  He has got a lot behind him but a lot ahead of him, what do you think are his biggest challenges that he needs to deal with as Pope as well as what do you think is going to be his most important accomplishment that the history books will remember him for?

Brenna Pursell:  God, I wish I could answer the second part of that question.  The first one I can answer, but the second part I just do not know.

Chris Cash:  I guess we really have no idea how long he will be Pope as well.

Brenna Pursell:  Exactly, we have to ask the Holy Spirit.  When you hit 81, come on, he could be gone tomorrow, he could be gone 10 years.  I have this kind of secret private hope that he will last forever, that he will have this unbelievably long pontificate that will make it into his 90s and he will stay as clear-headed and well spoken all the way there to the end.  I just hope that happens because most of the commentors are saying, “This will be a transitional Papacy, let us not take it very seriously.”  He himself, when he accepted the job, so to speak, said, “In this short pontificate, this is what I am going to try to do…”  Anyway, we will see what is going to happen.

Chris Cash:  At least compared to John Paul II, he is expecting it to be a short pontificate.  He will have a hard time reaching that long.

Brenna Pursell:  Yes, and let us hope not because that is just cruel.  I mean, the poor man, we do not want to inflict a hundred years on him.  But anyway, to answer the first part of your question, what are the main challenges he has?  Let us not forget what he said at his consecration in April 2005, he said, “I do not have a program of governance.”  Popes should not.  He does not have a project that he wants to complete in any kind of tangible way.  Well, but he does, I mean his main project is the conversion of hearts.  He said that nothing is more important to him than getting all people to see Christ, hear Christ, know Christ, love Christ, and to transform their hearts.  To convert their hearts and turn hearts towards Christ and towards love.  We are seeing that in his encyclicals, one about God being love, another about the salvific power of hope.  He is keeping the message basic – but, boy, can he explore and explain and go into the deepest complexity any of us can handle.  That is what he is going to do until he drops dead.

Chris Cash:  Well, Brennan, it has been an excellent time here talking with you.  Was there any final remarks you wanted to share with our listeners before we go?

Brenna Pursell:  Yes, everyone wants to know if I met him, and the answer is no, we do not quite move in the same circles.  But I wrote to him twice about…

Chris Cash:  Maybe one day.

Brenna Pursell:  Maybe, and it is up to him, he is very busy.  But I wrote to him twice about the project and I could not believe it.  But he answered both times briefly through his nuncio, but I was flabbergasted.  He has a copy of the book, I believe, at least that is what the present  apparently did, he got a copy of the book through his private secretary.  I got a wonderful endorsement from the Roman Curia and we will see whether he responds.  I wrote the book out of a desire to help out.  I am a historian, that is who I am.  I am a professional historian, I am a professor.  I did not write the book as a professor, there is no professories, nor jargons in it.  I wrote it for the common reader.  The idea about it is if we just give people the straight story, they will come to know Benedict as he is, not to have their vision clouded and their ears stuffed up with a lot of the sensational nonsense that comes out of the major media.

Chris Cash:  Well, if you do have the chance to meet the pope, you can put it in a good word for us.  Maybe we can get an interview with him sometime?

Brenna Pursell:  Sure, the Catholic Company, the Catholic Spotlight, you got it.  Those will be the first words on my lips when I meet him.  Oh, come on.

Chris Cash:  I thought so.

Brenna Pursell:  Do you remember when he was here and he met Wolf Blitzer?  Did you see that Wolf Blitzer on CNN?  I could not believe this, I was in this hotel in Washington.

Chris Cash:  I did not see it.

Brenna Pursell:  I will just tell you.  So Wolf Blitzer was apparently was in this little room there at Catholic University and got a chance to meet the Pope.  Frankly, personally, I do not watch CNN much, but I had never seen Wolf Blitzer smile.  Then here we are on CNN, and Wolf Blitzer comes out of this building and gives about a 12-minute interview in which he was just beaming face-to-face saying, “I met the Pope.  I was in this room and he came in and he said hello.  This is amazing.  I am not Catholic, but I met the Pope and I could not say anything.  I Wolf Blitzer had nothing to say.”  He just went on and on and on about how flabbergasted and excited and thrilled he was to have met the Pope, and the fact that he could not say anything.  He was struck speechless.

I think that is a wonderful moment, this is what the nature of Papacy should do.  This is the mission of the man, to be the kind of living embodiment of Christ’s picker, Saint Peter.  So, just to bring this back, if I ever were given the chance to meet him I doubt I would be able to get a word out either.

Chris Cash:  I have contemplated the thought of if I ever had the chance to interview him myself, I had to have copious notes and questions just so I could keep my own mind on track.

Brenna Pursell:  Yes, you got it.

Chris Cash:   I was nearly flabbergasted that way just interviewing Scott Hahn once.

Brenna Pursell:  Yes, he is another one.  That is the other thing, is when Benedict XVI gives interviews, he never has notes.  He does not have questions circulated ahead of time, he just takes everything right there.  He speaks in fully published book paragraphs, he thinks in chapters.  The guys is a genius and I am just so grateful we have him.

Chris Cash:  Well, Bren, thank you so much for coming on, we really appreciate it.  All you listeners out there, please head on over to Podcast Alley, vote for us over on Podcast Alley this month, help us to get up in the ratings so that more people will find our show and hopefully be evangelized by it.  Leave us reviews over on iTunes, every little bit helps over there as well.  God bless, Brenna, you have a great day.

Brenna Pursell:  Thank you Chris, you, too, God bless.


Transcript of Interview with Brennan Pursell about Benedict of Bavaria. This interview and others like it can be found at

Listen Now to the audio version of the show.

Benedict of Bavaria is available at The Catholic Company.

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