“He prays, he loves to study and read, he dedicates himself to correspondence, he walks with the Rosary in his hand in the Vatican Gardens, he receives visitors.” This is Benedict XVI’s life in the renovated Mater Ecclesia Vatican convent, where the Pope Emeritus has chosen to reside after his historic renunciation, according to the man closest to him, his private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein. Archbishop Gänswein also serves the current Pontiff as Prefect of the Papal Household,
The Archbishop was “intercepted” by journalists on Friday, in an aside from the presentation at the Pontifical Gregorian University of Roberto Regoli’s book “Beyond the Crisis of the Church” (Lindau Publishers). It is a “fascinating and moving” volume, at times “brilliant” and always “well documented,” which attempts to reconstruct, year after year, step by step, Benedict’s eight years on Peter’s Throne.
From February 19, 2005, and the results of the conclave that everyone expected but him, to February 11, 2013, which changed for ever the papal ministry, until the present of these three years lived in the heart of the Vatican, a few steps from his Successor, but always “hidden from the world.”
However, it is possible that the Pope Emeritus — who we’ve seen publicly on a few official occasions, such as the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, and the opening of the Jubilee — will again attend a public event “not too long from now,” given that on June 29 he will celebrate the 65th anniversary of his priesthood. In the pipeline, in fact, is an event to celebrate the occasion: “We’ll see what we are able to organize. It’s an objective occasion that makes one hope to be able to see him and to show that my phrase on the ‘candle’ was stupid,” said the archbishop, in reference to his remarks some time ago to an Italian weekly that compared the Emeritus Pope to a “candle that is being extinguished bit by bit.”
An ambiguous phrase, interpreted immediately as a worsening of the Pope’s health conditions. “I didn’t know that in Italian it could have a negative meaning,” explained the private secretary. “To say that he is like a candle means that the strength of his light is the same.” So, the Pope Emeritus “is well,” considering his 89 years. “He is serene, he is at peace with the Lord, with himself and with the world.” Moreover, said Archbishop Gänswein, there’s an increase in the flow of people that wish to meet him and that he receives, even though in recent times “we have had to slow down the visits because so many letters arrive every day to be read, and too many books, also manuscripts.”
In his intervention during the presentation of the book, Archbishop Gänswein reviewed, in keeping with the structure of the book and following the thread of his personal memories, the salient moments of Ratzinger’s Pontificate. Beginning with the Conclave of 2005, which saw him come out of the Sistine Chapel as Pope, with the name Benedict XVI and not “John Paul III, as perhaps many had hoped.” “Instead, he harked back to Benedict XV – the unfortunate great Pope of peace who was not listened to of the terrible years of World War I – and to Saint Benedict of Norcia, Patriarch of monasticism and Patron of Europe.”
“I could appear as a key witness to testify that, in the preceding years, Cardinal Ratzinger never presumed to rise to the highest office of the Catholic Church. He already dreamt of writing some final books in peace and tranquillity. The election came as a ‘real shock’ and he felt ‘anxiety,’” added Ganswein.
Another, totally negative shock for the German Pope was the sudden death of Manuela Camagni, one of the Memores Domini who was killed in a tragic accident in 2010. A year that Regoli describes as “black” for Ratzinger with the case of the Holocaust-denying Bishop Williamson and the series of ever more malicious attacks in his relations, in addition to the death of one of the members of the small “Papal Family.”
“Faced with such misfortunes the sensationalism of the media in those years, though having a certain effect, did not strike the Pope’s heart as much as Manuela’s death, torn from our midst so suddenly,” said Gänswein. “Benedict wasn’t an ‘actor Pope,’ and even less so an insensitive ‘automaton Pope’; on the Throne of Peter he was and remained a man, and he has remained such up to today.”
Therefore, he was very shaken when he discovered the betrayal of his butler Paolo Gabriele, which exploded the Vatileaks scandal. “He suffered very much,” confirmed Archbishop Gänswein, however “it is good that I say once and for all with all clarity that in the end Benedict did not renounce because of the poor, misguided butler, or because of the ‘tidbits’ coming from his apartment that in the so-called ‘Vatileaks affair’ circulated in Rome like false coins but were commercialized in the rest of the world as genuine gold ingots.”
“No traitor or ‘crow’ or any journalist was able to push him to that decision,” stressed the Prefect of the Papal Household. “That scandal was too small for [a decision] of that nature, something so much greater, a deeply-pondered step of age-old historical importance, which Benedict XVI took.” For him “it was appropriate” to resign, because “he was aware that increasingly he had less strength for the very weighty office.”
Therefore, Archbishop Gänswein specified, since Francis’ election on March 13, 2013, “there are not two Popes, but de facto a wider ministry – with an active member and a contemplative member.” “As in Peter’s times, today also the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church continues to have only one legitimate Pope. And yet, for three years now, we have been living with two Successors of Peter living among us, who are not in a competitive relation between them, and yet both with an extraordinary presence!”
“Therefore, Benedict XVI has not renounced either his name or the white cassock. So the correct appellative with which to address him still today is ‘Holiness,’” added Gänswein. And it is because of this that he “has not retired to an isolated monastery, but inside the Vatican.” It is as if he had taken “a step aside,” to make room for his Successor and to open a new chapter in the history of the papacy that “with that step has enriched it with the ‘power plant’ of his prayer and his compassion placed in the Vatican Gardens.”