Is Pope Francis getting ready to pass the torch? Pope Francis still has several irons on the fire, and he is adding more. He’s making plans at a rate that strongly suggests the end of his turn is not within his own sight. He is also taking time to give his own view of recent history, and that strongly suggests he is preparing his exit from the scene.

The impression comes from passages in two books – interviews with the Pope, published almost simultaneously. One, Life, is a biography of the Pope, which also recalls how history intersected with his personal life story. The other, El Sucesor, outlines Pope Francis’s relationship with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI through the decade they spent together in the Vatican.

The two book-length interviews appeared almost simultaneously. That should give us pause for thought. In them, Pope Francis indulges in personal confessions that border on gossip, reconstructing facts that cannot be verified. Regardless of his intention, the pope’s willingness to engage in that sort of talk amounts to his using the allure and mystique of his office – the “soft power” of the papacy, if you will – to tell it his way.

That has a way of becoming the “official” version of events.

In particular, the pope’s reconstructions of the 2005 and 2013 conclaves are striking. Pope Francis says that he could have blocked Benedict XVI’s election in 2005 and that instead, he channeled the votes attributed to him to Ratzinger, thus foiling a “maneuver” intended to block the election of Joseph Ratzinger.

Regarding the 2013 election, Pope Francis underlines that Cardinal Angelo Scola threw his votes Francis’s way. That is significant because Scola was the fellow credited as then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s principal challenger in conclave. If it was Scola himself who channeled the votes needed to elect the man who would become Pope Francis, that would be something.

Pope Francis also complains that cardinals wanted to put him on trial. According to Francis, these cardinals would have gone and told Benedict XVI of this desire, who dissuaded them and then reported the business to Francis.

Pope Francis attacks Benedict XVI’s longtime personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, both for the publication of his autobiography released on the day of Benedict’s funeral and by accusing him of having personally decided everything about the funeral itself. The funeral, you’ll recall, was a very understated affair that drew significant criticism for its modesty.

There was also a group of high-ranking churchmen – to hear Pope Francis tell it – who wanted to use Benedict XVI against him and even to secure the eventual use of the problematic “Pope Emeritus” title, should Francis (or anyone after him?) resign the papal office.

What is the problem with these contentions?

For one, they cannot be verified. They require a narrative reconstruction about which one can have many doubts. For example, the reconstruction of the 2005 conclave does not consider the role of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, champion of a progressive front and the one who supported the election of Benedict XVI. Martini’s role in 2005 has already been addressed by many, and was included in the famous secret diary that launched Bergoglio as a possible candidate – and when Martini spoke of “big news,” he was not likely thinking about a new candidate. It’s something that has been before the public for nearly twenty years, reported by by veteran Vatican watchers like Sandro Magister.

The problem rather is in the Pope’s use of the interview as the medium by which he attempts to determine how he will be remembered. He even goes so far as to anticipate the arrangements for his funeral, saying that much of the current rite will be abolished and that the last Pope to have been exposed was Benedict XVI because he wants his coffin to be closed.

The Pope, in short, says he wants to be buried like any other Christian.

Except that he would have Saint Mary Major for his final resting place, and would change the rites around the papal passing, to show the pope in his humanity.

The pope’s death was certified in ancient times by calling the pope by his secular name ([Georgius] – e.g. – mortuus est). This was to attest that with his death, the man who had been in the office left all official dignity behind and was a simple human being gone the way of all flesh. The pope was a human being who allowed himself to be visited and prayed for by the faithful, as any other Christian.

Closing the coffin without exposing the body therefore could risk sending a completely different message, namely that the pope remains pope even in death and that his role as a charismatic leader will not disappear.

These copious interviews suggest, in short, that Pope Francis is building the narrative that must accompany his exit from the scene – whenever it comes – and is doing so by talking more about himself: his person, his emotions, and his impressions. Conspicuously lacking from all his talk is any apparent regard for institutions.

There is Pope Francis, and then there is everything else.

Ultimately, the problem does not lie in using the interview. It has been used by other popes, including John Paul II, to make their thoughts known. No modern pope has expressed himself only in encyclicals and official documents. Pius XII used radio vigorously during World War II. Benedict XVI expressed himself as a theologian in his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, which he was at pains to present as free from any trappings of papal infallibility, in order to keep the discussion of the books not only open but focused on their theological merits. John Paul II wrote interview books, often gave off-the-cuff speeches, and effectively managed relations with the media and public opinion.

The problem isn’t even that the Pope responds to criticism.

To remain in recent history, Benedict XVI began a correspondence with the Italian atheist mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi, refuting some of his theories and saying that their exposition was not worthy of the scientist’s history – certainly not light words. And again, Benedict XVI responded with a very bitter letter to the request of the Dicastery for Communication to write the preface of a series that intended to show the theological foundations of Pope Francis, complaining about the inclusion among the theologians of that series of Peter Hünermann, who had openly opposed the recent pontificates including Benedict’s, and had also attacked Ratzinger the theologian.

This last letter was the basis of the so-called “Lettergate” case, which led to Msgr. Dario Viganò’s resignation as prefect of the Comms dicastery. Going back to that letter helps to understand the situation today. Even in that case, there was the attempt to create a narrative about Pope Francis and to involve Benedict XVI in that narrative.

Today, Benedict XVI is used to overcoming an opposition attributed above all to those around him.

It is a leitmotif of Benedict XVI’s pontificate and time as Emeritus to attack collaborators when Benedict himself cannot be attacked.

Not that Benedict XVI’s collaborators did not make mistakes – they are human, too. However, it is also true that Benedict XVI’s collaborators were put under the spotlight whenever Benedict XVI was under attack, as attacking the pope directly was considered inconvenient. Even the publications of the first Vatileaks scandal claimed that they tried to defend Benedict XVI’s reform and instead wanted to survey the behavior of his loyalists, who did not allow him to complete that reform.

Pope Francis has adopted this narrative. Yet, he himself decided that Benedict XVI, as Pope Emeritus, should participate in the life of the Church. Francis asked Benedict to join in blessing the statue of St. Michael the Archangel in the Vatican, in the canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II, in the consistories for creating new cardinals.

Pope Francis decided to bring the new cardinals to Pope Emeritus Benedict at the end of each consistory, since Benedict was too weak to leave the Mater Ecclesiae monastery and its surroundings. Francis was always informed when Benedict XVI’s writings were released – from the text read on the occasion of the dedication of a hall of the Urbaniana to the Pope Emeritus, to the letter on abuse, and when Benedict XVI began to respond to the accusations of covering up for abusive priests, which came from from Germany and concerned the period of his tenure as Archbishop of Munich and Friesing.

If all this is true, how can the disagreements with Benedict XVI’s collaborators result from Pope Emeritus’s manipulation of Francis? If all this is true, how would Pope Emeritus’s collaborators have had so much power, even to decide on the funeral?

These questions burn when you read Pope Francis’ reconstructions, leading to the fundamental question of these interviews.

They are interviews that represent the demythologization of the papacy, ultimately reduced to the person of Pope Francis. Pope Francis speaks like an average head of government who finds himself having to respond to a group of opponents; he describes the conclave as divided into factions almost without considering the role that prayer and discernment may have had in that context; he responds to criticisms as a man who feels hurt and who is required to reconstruct the facts. And he does it from a position of favor, telling things no one can contradict – at least not without fear of appearing partial.

The pope is indeed just a man and behaves like a man. But it is also true that an institution like the Papacy needs a pope who does not only look at his problems but also at his reading of the facts. A pope who looks at the Papacy before anything else, and not because everything must be translucent and sacralized but because everything has a more significant role than merely human vicissitudes.

These interviews risk to highlight human miseries and put God in the shadow. They cannot fail to please those who consider the Church a purely human matter and a rotten structure full of scandals. However, they can create a problem with the perception of the Church, the Papacy, and the Francis pontificate.

Thus, Pope Francis dealt the final blow to the Vatican structure in defining his exit from the scene.

It may be that he considers this part of his original electoral mandate for curial reform. Perhaps, simply, it is part of the spiritual conversion that he asks of the whole Church. However, he creates a narrative that contrasts Pope Francis with all the others, puts him at the center of the facts, and creates a division between those who support this modus operandi and those who look at it with a degree of circumspection.


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