In yet another editorial effort of recent times, Pope Francis had a conversation with ABC’s Vatican correspondent Javier Martinez Brocal to share his memories with Benedict XVI. The book is called El Sucesor. Mi recuerdos con Benedicto XVI, and the announcement of its publication came a few days before February 11, the day on which Benedict XVI shocked the world with the announcement of his resignation from the Petrine ministry.
Some excerpts have been released as teasers. “Benedict and I had an intense relationship,” Pope Francis says in one of them. “I want it to be known,” Francis says,“and I want him to be known without intermediaries. He was a man who dared to resign and, from that moment, continued to accompany the Church and his successor.”
And again, Pope Francis says, “Sometimes I raised a topic, sometimes Benedict did it. ‘I’m worried about this problem,’ one would say to the other. We talked about everything very freely. When I presented him with difficulty, he replied: ‘Well, this and that other element should also be taken into account.’ He always broadened his perspective. He could broaden my perspective to help me make a good decision. He never said: ‘I don’t agree’. I remember him instead saying: ‘This is fine. But we should also consider this other element…’. He broadened the perspective; he always broadened.”
These words testify to Benedict XVI’s greatness, truly capable of broadening his gaze. And they are also words that seem to exaggerate the relationship between Pope Francis and Benedict XVI. Because, in the spirit of humility and obedience always respected by Benedict XVI, it seems complicated for the Pope emeritus to raise problems with the Pope in office. He responded to solicitations (the book by Archbishop Gaenswein, secretary of Benedict XVI, published a letter of comments on the first interview with Pope Francis, granted to Civiltà Cattolica), but he did not solicit. He took the path of mediation, which he followed without pretense or meddling.
When Benedict XVI spoke (it happened a few times in public) or published some text, he immediately had his successor informed because he never wanted his words to be misunderstood or considered in conflict with those of Pope Francis.
It is nice to see the Pope pay homage to the Pope Emeritus, as he had always done during his pontificate, inviting him to all events such as consistories and canonizations and visiting him at every consistory with the new cardinals when Benedict XVI’s physical strength was beginning to fail..
At the same time, however, we cannot forget how Benedict XVI’s funeral was celebrated: the body brought to St. Peter’s at dawn, in the darkness, with a pickup truck; the arrival of the body in the churchyard during the rosary; the Pope’s homily, with almost no reference to the Pope Emeritus; Francis who did not even go to the gravesite in the Vatican Grottoes for the final funeral rites; diplomatic delegations put in great difficulty by the requests, including that of dressing informally.
Benedict XVI was not treated as a Pope emeritus or even as a peculiar member of the reigning Pope’s inner circle composed mostly of cardinals. He was treated as a unique but regular character.
Eleven years after his resignation, one year after his death, the memory of Benedict XVI is still alive. And there is a lot of Benedict XVI in every action of the Church, even those that seem furthest from his personality, precisely because Benedict XVI knew how to broaden horizons to look beyond contingent issues.
Benedict XVI was a man deeply in love with God and a Pope who wanted the Church to be renewed starting from Christ. We often discuss the V Latin American Episcopal Conference of Aparecida in 2007, where Cardinal Bergoglio was general rapporteur. The theme is “Disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ. So that our people can find life again.” Benedict XVI wanted the phrase to be reformulated as follows: “So that our people can find life in Him.”
The centrality of Christ was symbolized by the crucifix placed at the center of the altar, a point of reference for all the faithful and the priest who celebrated Him.
Benedict XVI communicated with his books. It is no coincidence that his last significant theological work was the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy. Everything comes from there. It starts from there. It ends there, in His blessed eternity.
The centrality of Christ gave body and life to everything else, which in Benedict XVI was immense. This is why he continued to exercise extraordinary charisma, even after his resignation, although Benedict XVI had never aspired to leadership roles.
It was inevitable that the presence of Benedict XVI in Peter’s enclosure made Pope Francis suffer. However, with this interview book, despite some exaggerations that seem to have the purpose of weaving a narrative more than telling the truth, Pope Francis must recognize the extraordinary ability of the Pope Emeritus to broaden his gaze.
Benedict XVI had liberalized the Latin Traditional Mass, which had made it possible finally to ask the Lefevbrian and hyper-conservative schismatics and para-schismatics to sign a doctrinal preamble to accept the Second Vatican Council. Was he right to behave like this? Yes, because instead, with Pope Francis’s harsh stance against the traditional world, different decisions created more division and less unity.
Benedict XVI was right to seek unity because it was the only way to avoid polarization. Pope Francis pursues a direction that forces everyone to take a position. Benedict XVI was right to focus on Christ because Christ is precisely what is missing today in many debates, from the blessing of irregular couples to the synodal reform of the Church.
Pope Francis recognizes Benedict XVI’s reasons and appropriates them. He allows everyone to let their side of the story be told. It should be remembered, however, that Pope Francis is not Benedict XVI, that respect for a predecessor does not mean that he will have a good pontificate. Above all, the Pope is increasingly alone today.
Benedict XVI was a real support when he was alive. In death, he is still loved. Pope Francis cannot help but recognize the extraordinary faith of his predecessor.
But what does this recognition mean? Why does it happen so late, a year after the death of Benedict XVI? Is it part of Pope Francis’ media offensive to redefine his image, or is it a sign of esteem?
These are questions that burn, as burns the memory of Benedict XVI, living and present. Eleven years after his renunciation, there is still a living memory of that day. Benedict XVI was, after all, a free Pope. There was no blackmail against him. It was not possible.
For this reason, the idea that Benedict XVI noticed things is jarring. How jarring the concept of a Pope Francis ready to listen. Pope Francis has built and fostered the narrative of his own pontificate – quite legitimately – which includes a renewal project for the Church and the line of mercy, also essential for Benedict XVI. Eleven years later, however, we can see that Francis’ is not a pontificate of continuity.
We can also see how Benedict XVI was right about many things despite the difficulties. And history, one day, will do justice.