Retired pope continues making history

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI shocked the world when he made history by resigning the papacy in 2013. Now he makes history again as the first pope to speak about his papacy after its conclusion. In Last Testament: In His Own Words the retired pope offers enlightening responses to Peter Seewald’s questions — the German author with whom previously he has written three other such books, both as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as pope. This new volume shares insights from Benedict’s historic decision to resign, to the so-called Vatileaks scandal, to personal reflections about his family and his own faith.

While he will be best remembered for his decision to resign, Benedict’s historical imprint is much wider. From growing up in Nazi Germany, to being an influential theologian behind the scenes at the Second Vatican Council, or working alongside Pope St. John Paul II for over 20 years, there are few churchmen to ever have wielded such an important influence in the life of the Church.

An intimate self-portrait of Benedict is revealed and his character shines through. Defined by a strong sense of humility, there’s a certain innocence that comes through, too.

Does Benedict miss the papacy? “Not at all, no! … I am grateful to God for lifting this responsibility which I could no longer bear from my shoulders,” he said. He relates the feeling upon election as that of “a guillotine.” When asked if he regrets his resignation, he quipped, “No! No, no. Every day I see that it was right.”

In many ways his election surprised Benedict. “I thought to myself that if the rule is that a bishop stops at seventy-five, then you cannot let the Bishop of Rome begin at seventy-eight.” But the cardinal electors of the 2005 conclave thought differently.

Benedict had his fair share of difficulties during his time on the chair of Peter. Many detractors have called his papacy a failure. “I cannot see myself as a failure,” he said. On the contrary, he believes his papacy was “a time in which many people newly found the faith and a great positive movement was there.”

When Benedict was elected, he knew that his advanced age meant that he would not be a reformer pope. He was resolved to bring to the papacy the theological background. “I knew that my strength, if I have one, is to proclaim the faith positively.” Fittingly, then, Benedict regarded the “Year of Faith” as a hallmark of his pontificate — “a new encouragement for faith, for a life from the centre, from vitality, to discover God again, to discover Christ again, and so find the centrality of faith again.”

Among the things he disliked were the many political visits, which were “somehow most laborious.” And he feels regret that he “did not always have the energy to express the catechesis as penetratingly and as humanly as possible.” Saying he was happy as pope, he again reiterated, “it was always a burden too, of course.”

“Last Testament” contains a great deal of self-criticism from Benedict, such as when he admitted “practical governance is not my forte.” When asked what he did a particularly good job at, he laughed and said, “That I don’t know.”  

There’s no doubt that Benedict is quite different than his successor. Benedict sees himself as a pope between old and new eras — “I don’t belong to the old world anymore, but the new world isn’t really here.” But readers would futilely look for disapproval of Francis from Benedict. In fact, Benedict is extraordinarily positive when it comes to Pope Francis. Benedict admits, without naming names, that he expected someone else as his successor, but when he saw how Francis, “spoke with God on the one hand and with the people on the other, I was truly glad. And happy.” He sees “no opposition” between his and Francis’ pontificates. The cerebral Benedict is quick to point out Francis as a pope of reflection —  “a thoughtful person, who grapples intellectually with the questions of our time.” And when it comes to their stylistic differences: “I approve, definitely,” Benedict says, also citing his respect for Francis’ ability to relate to people, something he felt he lacked himself.

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These days, the pope emeritus spends his time in the quiet monastery nestled in the Vatican gardens where he focuses on a life of prayer and preparation for death. He said he fears death because the closer he draws to God, “the more intensely you feel how much you have done wrong.”

A prolific author, Benedict still writes a weekly sermon for those who live with him. When questioned further about writing for only four or five people, he replied, “Why not? Certainly! … The Word of God must always be present to people.”

As Benedict lives out the final chapter of his life, he ponders love and its source, a common thread in his thought and writing. “God is not, let’s say, a ruling power, a distant force; rather he is love and he loves me — and as such, life should be guided by him, by this power called love.”

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of The Catholic Answer magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @HeinleinMichael. Follow The Catholic Answer at @tcanswer.