February 7, 2014


Pope Emeritus Benedict’s retirement viewed a year later

It has now been a year—on Feb. 11, 2013—since Pope Benedict XVI announced to a surprised gathering of cardinals that he intended to resign. It was the first time a pope had resigned since Pope Gregory XII did so in 1415 to end what is known in history as the Great Western Schism when three men claimed to be pope.

Pope Benedict, though, may have thought more about Pope Celestine V, who was elected pope in 1294 at age 80 to end a deadlocked conclave. He soon recognized that he was unsuited to be pope and resigned. Pope Benedict was convinced that his failing health made it impossible for him to implement reforms in the Church that he believed were needed. It was time to retire at 85.

Pope Emeritus Benedict moved into the Mater Ecclesiae monastery, a peaceful setting in the Vatican Gardens. Pope Francis, who was elected on March 13, was there to meet the pope emeritus when he arrived there on May 2 after living at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence, while his retirement home was being prepared.

Unlike what happened to Pope Celestine V, whom Pope Boniface VIII, his successor, imprisoned until his death two years later, Pope Emeritus Benedict has enjoyed a good relationship with Pope Francis. We don’t know how often they might talk by phone, but we know that Archbishop Georg Ganswein, prefect of the papal household, has continued as Pope Emeritus Benedict’s secretary. He has called himself a “bridge” between the two men.

The pope emeritus said that he intended to remain away from the public, and he has done so. Pope Francis managed to get him to attend the consecration of the Vatican City State to the protection of St. Michael the Archangel, and photographers were around when Pope Francis visited Pope Emeritus Benedict on Dec. 23, but otherwise he seems to be enjoying the life of a retired prelate.

He prays, reads, listens to classical music, plays the piano, visits with friends, takes his daily walks while praying the rosary as he did while he was pope, and maintains a heavy correspondence. When his brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, had a medical checkup in Rome on Jan. 4, he visited him in the hospital, and the brothers celebrated Georg’s 90th birthday on Jan. 15 with a classical music concert in the Vatican.

The “Ratzinger Schulerkreis” is an organization of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s former students while Father Josef Ratzinger was a theology teacher. They met with Cardinal Ratzinger annually while he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to discuss a particular theological question, and he continued to meet with them at Castel Gandolfo while he was pope.

The group met last year as usual. Pope Emeritus Benedict celebrated Mass with them in the Vatican, but he did not participate in the discussions. No statement was made at the time, but we suspect that, if the pope emeritus had participated in the discussions, somehow word would have gotten out, and he is determined to remain out of the spotlight.

Much has been made about the differences between Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis, as if this is surprising. Of course, the popes are different. That has been true throughout history. Consider, for example, how much different Pope John XXIII was from his predecessor, Pope Pius XII. Or more recently, the difference between Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Pope Francis has stressed the need to be “pastoral,” while Pope Benedict put more emphasis on doctrine, as the theologian he is. Pope Francis is emphasizing different aspects of Catholic dogma than Pope Benedict did, but both uphold the same doctrines. When Pope Benedict retired before finishing his encyclical “Lumen Fidei,” Pope Francis finished it for him and published it on June 29.

Shortly before Pope Benedict left the apostolic palace for the last time as pope, he met with the College of Cardinals. He told them, “Among you there is the future pope, to whom, here today, I already promise my unconditional reverence and obedience.” That is what he has done for the past year.

Ad multos annos, Pope Emeritus Benedict.

—John F. Fink

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