Benedict XVI Pays Tribute to Blessed John Paul II in New Interview

«He supported me with absolutely incomprehensible fidelity and kindness.»

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We publish below extracts of a recent interview Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gave to ZENIT’s Wlodzimierz Redzioch in which he pays tribute to soon-to-be-canonized Pope John Paul II.

The complete interview appears in a book just published in Italian entitled “Beside John Paul II – Friends and Collaborators Speak” (Ares 2014). The interview, one of 21 with the late Pontiff’s close friends and associates, runs to 12 pages in total. It is entitled: “It Became Ever More Clear to Me that John Paul II Was a Saint”.


In this first extract, Benedict XVI is asked to recount his first meeting with Cardinal Wojtyla:

BENEDICT XVI: The first meeting I am aware of, between me and Cardinal Wojtyla, happened only in the Conclave in which John Paul I was elected.

During the Council, we both collaborated on the Constitution on the Church in the contemporary world, and yet in different sessions we did not meet. In September of 1978, on the occasion of the visit of Polish Bishops in Germany, I was in Ecuador as personal representative of John Paul I. The Church of Monaco and Freising is linked to the Ecuadorian Church in a twinning realized by Archbishop Echevarria Ruiz (Guayaquil) and Cardinal Dopner. And thus, to my great displeasure, I lost the occasion to know the Archbishop of Krakow personally. Naturally, I had heard talk of his work as philosopher and pastor, and I had wanted to meet him for a long time.

For his part, Wojtyla had read my Introduction to Christianity, which he also quoted in the Spiritual Exercises he preached for Paul VI in Lent of 1976. Therefore, it was as if interiorly we both hoped to meet.

I had from the beginning a great veneration and a cordial liking for the Archbishop of Krakow. In the pre-Conclave of 1978, he analyzed for us, in an amazing way, the nature of Marxism. However, above all I perceived immediately and strongly the human charm that he emanated and, from the way he prayed, I realized how profoundly united he was to God.


In this extract, the Pope Emeritus answers a question in which he is asked about his appointment to prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

BENEDICT XVI: John Paul II called me in 1979 to appoint me prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Just two years had passed since my episcopal consecration in Munich and I thought it was impossible to leave so soon the See of Saint Corbinianus. The episcopal consecration represented in some way a promise of fidelity to the diocese to which I belonged. So I asked the Pope to postpone that appointment […].

It was in the course of 1980 that he told me he would appoint me again, at the end of 1981, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as successor of Cardinal Seper.

As I continued to feel obliged in the affairs of the diocese to which I belonged, I permitted myself to set a condition for the acceptance of the post, which, moreover, I believed was unrealizable.  I said that I felt the duty to continue publishing theological works. I could answer affirmatively only if this was compatible with the task of prefect. The Pope, who was always benevolent and understanding with me, said that if he were informed about this question he could then make up his mind. Subsequently, when I paid him a visit, he explained to me that theological publications are compatible with the office of prefect; Cardinal Garrone, he said, had also published theological works when he was prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

So I accepted the office, very conscious of the gravity of the task, but knowing also that obedience to the Pope now exacted a “yes” from me.


Extract of the Pope Emeritus’ answer to a question on his work with Pope Wojtyla.

BENEDICT XVI: The collaboration with the Holy Father was always characterized by friendship and affection. It developed above all on two planes: the official and the private.

Every Friday, at six o’clock in the afternoon, the Pope received in audience the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who submitted for his decision the problems that emerged. Naturally, doctrinal problems had precedence, to which are added questions of a disciplinary character – the reduction to the lay state of priests who have requested it, the concession of the Pauline privilege for those marriages in which one of the spouses is not Christian, and so on. Added afterwards, also, was the work underway for the drafting of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

From time to time, the Holy Father received the essential documentation ahead of time, so he knew in anticipation the questions to be addressed. Thus, in regard to theological problems, we were always able to converse fruitfully. The Pope was also very well read on contemporary German literature, and it was always good – for both of us – to seek together the right decision on all these things […].

[…] Finally, it was the Pope’s custom to invite to lunch Bishops on visit ad Limina, as well as groups of Bishops and priests of different composition, according to the circumstance. They were almost always “working lunches” in which often a theological subject was proposed.

[…] The great number of those present always made the conversation varied and of ample breadth. And yet there was always a place also for good humor. The Pope laughed freely, so those working lunches, though seriousness was imposed, were also in fact occasions to be in happy company.


Extract from an answer concerning the doctrinal challenges they addressed together.

On the Theology of Liberation:

BENEDICT XVI: The first great challenge we addressed was the Theology of Liberation, which was spreading in Latin America. It was the common opinion, be it in Europe or in North America, that it was about support to the poor and, therefore, a cause that should certainly be approved. But it was an error.

Poverty and the poor were without a doubt put forth as topics of the Theology of Liberation but in a very specific perspective. The forms of immediate aid to the poor and the reforms that would improve their condition were condemned as reformism which has the effect of consolidating the system: they mitigated, it was affirmed, the anger and indignation which instead were necessary for the revolutionary transformation of the system. It was not a question of aid or reform, it was said, but of a great upheaval from which a new world would spring. The Christian faith was being used as the engine for this revolutionary movement, thus transforming it into a kind of political force. The religious traditions of the faith were put at the service of political action. Thus the faith was profoundly estranged from itself and true love of the poor was also weakened. [The Pope Emeritus continues here to talk about the topic of Liberation Theology].


On ecumenism:

BENEDICT XVI: One of the principal problems of our work, in the years that I was prefect, was the effort to reach a correct understanding of ecumenism.

Also in this case it is a question that has a double profile: on one side, affirmed with all its urgency, is the task to work for unity and to open ways that lead to it; on the other, it is necessary to reject false conceptions of unity, which would like to reach the unity of the faith through the shortcut of the watering down of the faith. […].


On the task of theology in the contemporary age:

BENEDICT XVI: Lastly we were concerned also with the question relative to the nature and task of theology in our time. Science and ties to the Church seem, to many today, elements in contradiction between themselves. And yet Theology can subsist only in the Church and with the Church.
On this question we published an Instruction.


Extract of answer on John Paul II’s most important encyclicals.

BENEDICT XVI: I think there are encyclicals of particular importance. In the first place I would like to mention Redemptor Hominis, the Pope’s first encyclical, in which he offered his personal synthesis of the Christian faith […]

In the second place I would like to mention the encyclical Redemptoris Missio […]

In the third place I would like to mention the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, on moral problems.

It was in need of long years of maturation and remains of unchanged topicality. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the contemporary world, counter to the Natural Law orientation prevailing at the time of Moral Theology, wanted the Catholic moral doctrine, on the figure of Jesus and his message, to have a biblical foundation. This was attempted through hints only for a brief period, then the opinion began to affirm itself that the Bible had no morality of its own to announce, but that it refers to moral models valid from time to time. Morality is a question of reason, it was said, not of faith.

Thus, on one hand, morality disappeared as understood in the sense of Natural Law, but in its place no Christian conception was affirmed. And as one could not recognize a metaphysical or Christological foundation of morality, recourse was taken to pragmatic solutions, to a morality founded on the principle of the balance of goods, in which there no longer exists what is truly evil and what is truly good, but only that which, from the point of view of efficacy, is better or worse.

The great task that the Pope gave himself in this encyclical was to trace again a metaphysical foundation in the anthropology, as well as a Christian concretization in the new image of man of Sacred Scripture.

To study and assimilate this encyclical remains a great and important duty.

Of great significance also is the encyclical Fides et Ratio […] [..] Lastly, it is absolutely necessary to mention Evangelium Vitae, which develops one of the fundamental topics of the entire pontificate of John Paul II: the intangible dignity of human life, from the first instance of conception.


Extract from answer on the spirituality of the Polish Pope.

BENEDICT XVI: The Pope’s spirituality was characterized above all by the intensity of his prayer and, therefore, it was profoundly rooted in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist and made together with the whole Church with the recitation of the Breviary.

In his autobiographical book Gift and Mystery it is possible to see how much the Sacrament of the priesthood had determined his life and his thought. So his devotion could never be purely individual, but was always also full of solicitude for the Church and for men […]

All of us knew his great love for the Mother of God. To give himself totally to Mary meant for him to be, with her, all for the Lord […]


Extract from the answer on Wojtyla’s reputation of sanctity in life

BENEDICT XVI: [The idea] that John Paul II was a saint came to me from time to time, in the years of my collaboration with him, ever clearer. Naturally, one must first of all keep in mind his intense relationship with God, his being immersed in communion with the Lord, of which he hardly spoke. From here came his happiness in the midst of the great labors he had to sustain, and the courage with which he fulfilled his task at a truly difficult time.

John Paul II did not ask for applause, nor did he ever look around, concerned about how his decisions were received. He acted from his faith and his convictions and he was ready also to suffer the blows.

The courage of the truth is in my [judgment] the criterion of the first order of sanctity.

Only from his relation with God is it possible to understand his indefatigable pastoral commitment. He gave himself with a radicalism which cannot be explained otherwise.

His commitment was tireless, and not only in the great trips, whose programs were dense with appointments from beginning to end, but also day after day, beginning with the morning Mass until late at night. During his first visit to Germany (1980), for the first time I had a very concrete experience of this enormous commitment. So during his stay in Munich, I decided he should take a longer break at midday. During that interval he called me to his room. I found him reciting the Breviary and I said to him: “Holy Father, you should rest”, and he said: “I can do so in Heaven.”

Only one who is profoundly filled with the urgency of his mission can act like this.

[…] But I must render honor also to his extraordinary kindness and understanding. Often I had sufficient reasons to blame myself or to put an end to my job of Prefect. And yet he supported me with absolutely incomprehensible fidelity and kindness.

Here, too, I would like to give an example. In face of the turmoil that developed around the Declaration Dominus Iesus, he told me that he intendedto defend the document unequivocally at the Angelus. He invited me to write a text for the Angelus which should be, so to speak, watertight and not consent to any different interpretation. It should emerge, in an altogether unequivocal way, that he approved the document unconditionally.

Therefore, I prepared a brief address. I did not intend, however, to be too brusque and so I sought to express myself with clarity and without harshness. After having read it, the Pope asked once again: “Is it really sufficiently clear?” I answered yes.</p>

Those who know theologians will not be astonished by the fact that, this notwithstanding, afterwards there were those who held that the Pope had prudently distanced himself from that text.


Last phrase

BENEDICT XVI: My memory of John Paul II is filled with gratitude. I cannot and must not try to imitate him, but I have sought to carry forward his legacy and his task as best I could. And, therefore, I am certain that still today his kindness accompanies me and his blessing protects me. 

[Translation by ZENIT]
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