When Reverend Joseph Fessio was a student at the University of Regensburg in then-West Germany from 1972 to 1975, his doctoral director and mentor was Father Joseph Ratzinger, who later became cardinal and was elected Pope on Apr. 19, taking the name Benedict XVI.
In 1989, Fessio, along with fellow classmate Christoph Schönbrun, now Vienna's cardinal, and Marc Ouellet, now Quebec's cardinal, established Casa Balthasar, a residence outside Rome for those considering a vocation to the priesthood, under the auspices of Cardinal Ratzinger. As a director of Casa Balthasar, Fessio meets annually with Ratzinger. He has collaborated with Ratzinger, as head of the Committee of Cardinals, and Schönbrun, executive editor, on the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in 1993-94.
On Apr. 20, Fessio, a Jesuit who's currently provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., discussed his mentor with BusinessWeek Special Correspondent Ann Therese Palmer. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: You knew the new Pope before he was named a cardinal. What kind of a manager was he?
A:Perhaps the best way to know what kind of a manager he is would be to ask those who actually work with him day-to-day. Three good priest friends have been in that position. They all revere him and consider him a saint.
I would call him more a leader than a manager. He inspires others to give fully of themselves and encourages them to develop their talents. Despite the way he is often portrayed, he is warm and gracious. He has a wonderful sense of humor.
When Walter Kasper was a bishop in Germany, he publicly opposed Cardinal Ratzinger in a way that was quite inconsiderate. Years later, when it was proposed that Kasper be made a cardinal, Cardinal Ratzinger, who could have clearly blocked it, did not do so. He holds no grudges and has a genuine love even of those with whom he seriously disagrees.
Q: What was he like as a mentor when you were studying under him?
A:As a mentor he was very easy to talk to and very understanding. He gave me excellent guidance in my thesis research and writing. He is a brilliant theologian in his own right and has wonderful perceptive abilities, but he listens very attentively and patiently.
However, once he has heard a person out and been asked for his opinion or a decision, he expresses it very calmly, clearly, and decisively. He has the ability to gather up into one sentence almost all the elements that are needed.
Q: What about the characterization that he is as tough as nails?
A:He may be characterized as "tough as nails," and in one sense he is. I'm confident that he would die for the truths that he holds. No one could dislodge from him the faith which he has made such a part of his life and his being.
At the same time, that's not how he treats people. There is no person I've ever met who is any more gentle, gracious, or cordial than Cardinal Ratzinger. There is no difference between his public and private persona. That's one of the endearing characteristics of Joseph Ratzinger.
Whether as bishop or cardinal or even now as Pope, he will speak openly and transparently. He will listen carefully.
Q: Do you think Vatican II influenced him?
A:As a young theologian, Joseph Ratzinger was a theological adviser to two influential German cardinals during the Second Vatican Council. Against the background of the pre-Vatican II Church, he seemed like a liberal. Against the background of the post-Vatican II Church, he seems like a conservative.
He has always been a loyal son of the Church, one of tremendous brilliance and wide culture and education. His positions haven't changed, but the surrounding society and even some aspects of the Church have.
Q: What effect did the 1968 student revolts in Paris and at Germany's University of Tubingen, where Father Ratzinger was teaching, have on him?
A:He certainly saw and experienced then that violent revolution is not the way to achieve beneficial social change. Nor does it lead to spiritual maturity. I believe that he took Benedict for his papal name precisely because St. Benedict was the father of Europe. St. Benedict was a young man in a corrupt superpower that had become hedonistic and self-centered. In addition to this moral corruption from within, there were the attacks from the barbarians from without.
So [in the sixth century] Benedict left Rome and went out into the woods to pray. Others joined him, and from that experience arose the great Benedictine monastic movement. By the year 1200 there were 40,000 Benedictine monasteries scattered throughout Europe.
These monasteries preserved the cultural riches of Greece and Rome, as well as the growing wisdom accumulated by the Church herself. It was through Benedict's flight from a corrupt and corrupting society, and his seeking of God alone through prayer and work (ora et labora) that he transformed culture and Europe.