An interview with Benedict XVI
Rome’s sky is full of threatening clouds, but when I arrive at the Mater Ecclesiae, the Pope emeritus’ residence, an unexpected ray of sunshine lights up the dome of St Peter’s in harmony with the Vatican Gardens. During a previous visit, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI had called this place “my paradise”. I am led into the room that also serves as his private library, and my thoughts naturally turn to the title of Jean Leclercq’s book L’amour des lettres et le désir de Dieu, which Benedict XVI mentioned in his famous address at the College des Bernardins in Paris.
The Pope emeritus comes in after a few minutes, greets me with a kind smile, as courteous as ever, and says to me: “I am up to fifteen”. I am puzzled, and so he clarifies: “I have read fifteen chapters”. Quite frankly I am surprised. A few months earlier I had sent him a large section of the book, but I had never expected him to read it in full. I offer him the other chapters and tell him that I now only have a bit left. He is pleased with what he has read, and so I ask: “Would you mind if I ask you some questions as an interview?”. As always, he responds in a kind and down-to-earth manner, saying: “Ask me the questions, then send me everything and we shall see”. I follow his instructions, of course. Some time later he wrote to me and consented to the publication. All I can do is to express gratitude for his confidence.
Your Holiness, on your last visit to Germany in 2011, you said: “One cannot renounce God”. And again: "Where God is, there is a future". Were you sad to have to leave during the Year of Faith?
Naturally I had at heart the completion of the Year of Faith, and writing the Encyclical on faith that was to conclude the journey that had begun with Deus Caritas Est. As Dante said, the Love that moves the sun and the other stars, impels us, leads us into the presence of God who gives us hope and a future. In a situation of crisis, the best attitude is to stand before God with the desire to regain faith in order to be able to continue on the path of life. For his part the Lord is happy to grant our desire, to give us the light to guide us on the pilgrimage of life. This is the experience of the Saints, of St John of the Cross and of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus. In 2013, however, there were various commitments that I felt I could no longer bring to term.
Which commitments were they?
In particular, the date for World Youth Day had already been set to take place in the summer of 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Now, in this regard, I had two very specific convictions. After the experience of visiting Mexico and Cuba, I no longer felt able to undertake such a demanding journey. Moreover, with the approach that John Paul II had formulated for these days, the physical presence of the Pope was indispensable. One could not consider a television linkup or other forms guaranteed by technology. This was also a circumstance which made the renunciation a duty for me. In the end I felt sure that even without my presence the Year of Faith would still go well. Faith, in fact, is a grace, a generous gift given by God to believers. Therefore, I had the firm conviction that my Successor would — as has been the case — also lead the initiative that I had launched to the successful conclusion desired by the Lord.
During your visit to the Basilica of Collemaggio in L'Aquila, you placed your pallium on the altar of St Celestine V. Could you tell me when it was that you took the decision to renounce the exercise of the Petrine Ministry for the good of the Church?
My trip to Mexico and Cuba was beautiful and moving in very many respects. In Mexico, I was impressed by encountering the deep faith of so many young people, experiencing their joyful passion for God. Likewise, I was struck by the great problems in Mexican society and the Church’s commitment to find a response, based on faith, to the challenges of poverty and violence. It goes without saying, however, that in Cuba I was struck in seeing the way Raúl Castro wants to lead his country on a new road without breaking continuity with the immediate past. Here too I was very impressed by the way my brother bishops were trying to find an orientation based on faith, in this difficult process.
In those days, especially, I became fully aware of my physical limitations. Above all I realized I could no longer face future transoceanic flights because of the change in time zones. Naturally I also discussed these issues with mv physician, Dr Patrizio Polisca. In this way it became clear that I would no longer be able to take part in World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2013. The issue of the time zone was clearly insurmountable. From that point on I had to decide, in a relatively short period, the date of my retirement.
After your renunciation many people imagined mediaeval scenarios, with doors slamming and blatant allegations. To the ex- tent that the same commentators were surprised, almost disappointed, by your decision to stay within the enclosure of St Peter's and move to the ‘Mater Ecclesiae’ monastery. How did you come to this decision?
I had visited the Mater Ecclesiae monastery many times since its founding. I had gone there often to attend Vespers, to celebrate Holy Mass for all the religious Sisters who had succeeded each other there. The last time was on the occasion of the anniversary of foundation of the Visitation Sisters. Some time before, John Paul II had decided that the house, which had previously served as the residence of the director of Vatican Radio, was to become a place of contemplative prayer, as a source of living water within the Vatican. Having learned that in the spring of that year the Visitation Sisters' three-year term would end, I gradually became aware that this would be the place I could retire to and was how I could continue my service in prayer, which is the use that John Paul II had intended for the house.
I do not know whether you have seen the photo taken by a BBC correspondent, on the day of your resignation, of St Peter’s dome being struck by lightning (Benedict nods his head, affirming that he had seen it). To many people, that picture suggested the idea of decadence or even of the end of the world. Now, however, I must say: they expected to lament a loser, one defeated by history, but here I see a man who is serene and confident.
I completely agree. I would have been really worried had I not been convinced, as I said at the beginning of my Pontificate, of being a simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard. Since the beginning I was aware of my limitations and I accepted them, as I have always tried to do in life, in a spirit of obedience. Then, there were varying degrees of difficulty of the Pontificate, but there were also many graces. I realized that all that I had to do could not be done alone, and so I was almost obliged to put myself in God’s hands, to entrust myself to Jesus, to whom, as I wrote in my book about him, I felt bound by an old and ever-deepening friendship.
Then there was the Mother of God, the mother of hope who was a sure support in difficulty, and who I always felt to be closer to in the recitation of the Holy Rosary and in visits to Marian Shrines. Finally, there were the Saints, my travelling companions throughout life: St Augustine and St Bonaventure, my spiritual teachers, but also St Benedict, whose motto “prefer nothing to Christ” became ever more familiar to me, and St Francis, the Poverello of Assisi, the first to realize that the world is the mirror of the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying.
Therefore, only spiritual consolations?
No. My journey has not been accompanied only from on High. Every day I received numerous letters, not only from important people of the world, but also from humble and simple people who wanted me to know that they were close to me, that they were praying for me. Hence, even in the difficult times I had the confidence and certainty that the Church is guided by the Lord and that, therefore, I could place in his hands the Mandate that he had given me on the day of my election. Indeed, this support has continued even after my resignation, and therefore I can only be grateful to the Lord and to all those who have expressed and still express their affection to me.
In your farewell to the cardinals on 28 February 2013, you pledged obedience to your Successor. Meanwhile, I have the impression that you have also guaranteed Pope Francis your human closeness and cordiality. How is your relationship with your Successor?
Obedience to my Successor was never in question. Besides there is a feeling of deep communion and of friendship. At the time of his election I felt, as many others did, a spontaneous feeling of gratitude to Providence. After two Popes from Central Europe, the Lord was redirecting the gaze of the universal Church, so to speak, and inviting us to a broader, more Catholic communion.
Personally I was deeply touched from the very first moment by the extraordinary human availability Pope Francis expressed to me. Immediately after his election he tried to reach me on the phone. As this attempt failed, he telephoned me once more immediately after his meeting with the universal Church from the balcony of St Peter’s, and he spoke to me with great cordiality. Since then he has entertained a wonderful paternal and fraternal relationship with me. I often receive small gifts, and letters written personally.
Before embarking on long journeys, the Pope never fails to pay me a visit. The human kindness he treats me with is a special grace during this last phase of my life, for which I can only be grateful. What he says when he speaks of openness towards other men are not merely words. He puts them into practice with me. May the Lord let him, in his turn, feel His benevolence each day. I pray to the Lord for this grace for him.