On the first anniversary of the announcement of Benedict XVI’s renunciation of the Petrine ministry, Holy See Press Office Director Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi spoke with Vatican Radio’s Alessandro Gisotti about the momentous day a year ago.
Father Lombardi: It has been centuries since there was a papal resignation; hence, for the very great majority of people it was an unheard of and surprising gesture. In reality, for those who were closer to Benedict XVI, it was known that he had reflected on this subject, and he said so explicitly in his conversation with Peter Seewald, some time earlier – at an earlier time. Therefore, it was a subject on which he prayed, reflected, evaluated, and made his spiritual discernment. It was something that he then acted on and he gave us a synthetic report about on the day of his resignation, in those brief but very dense words that explained in an absolutely appropriate and clear way the criteria on the basis of which he made his decision. What I say – and I already said it at the time – is that it seemed to me a great act of government, that is, a decision made freely that really affected the situation and the history of the Church. In this sense, it was a great act of government, made with great spiritual profundity, with great preparation from the point of view of reflection and prayer; and great courage because being, effectively, an unheard of decision, all problems and doubts could be exercised about “what” it meant, as reflections, as consequences for the future, as reception on the part of the people of God or of the public. The clarity with which Benedict XVI had prepared himself for this gesture and, I would say, the faith with which he prepared himself, gave him the serenity and strength necessary to carry it out, going with courage and serenity, with a vision that was truly of faith and of awaiting the Lord, who constantly accompanies His Church. [It was] an encounter with this new situation which he lived personally, for several weeks, and which the Church then lived with the coming of the election of the new Pope, as we all know. One sees that there has truly been this sense of accompaniment of the journeying Church by the Spirit of the Lord.
In regard, precisely, to this last passage: a year ago many wondered how the unheard of coexistence of two Popes would be. Today we see that the many fears – perhaps more of the “experts” than of the people of God – were exaggerated.
Father Lombardi: Yes, from this point of view, it seemed absolutely clear to me that there should not be any fear whatsoever. Why? Because the issue is the fact that the papacy is a service and not a power. If problems are lived in the framework of power, then it’s clear that two persons could have difficulties in coexisting because of the fact of giving up a power and having to live with the successor. However, if everything is lived exclusively as service, then a person who has fulfilled his service before God and in full awareness, passes the witness of this service to another person who, with an attitude of service and of full liberty of conscience, carries out this task, then there is absolutely no problem! There is a profound spiritual solidarity between the Servants of God who seek the good of the people of God in the service of the Lord.
Pope Benedict took leave underlining that he would continue to serve the Church with prayer. This is a really extraordinary contribution he has given, and is still giving, no?
Father Lombardi: Yes … a very small personal recollection. Above all, in the early days of the Pontificate, every time there was an audience and I went by to greet the Pope, as usual he gave me a Rosary, because it often happens that one is given an image, a Rosary, a medal … And every time the Pope gave me a Rosary he said: “Priests must also remember to pray.” See, I’ve never forgotten this, because he manifested thus, in a very simple way, his conviction and his attention to the place of prayer in our life, also and in particular in the life of one who has tasks of responsibility in the Lord’s service. Look, Benedict XVI was certainly always a man of prayer, in his whole life, and he wished, probably, to have time in which to live this dimension of prayer with more space, totality and profundity. And this is now his time.
But Pope Benedict’s life of prayer is not lacking in moments of encounter, also with Pope Francis, as we know. What can you say about this hidden, but not isolated, life of Joseph Ratzinger?
Father Lombardi: I think it’s right to realize that he lives in a discreet way, without a public dimension. However, this does not mean that he lives isolated, closed as in a strict cloister. He carries out the normal activity of an elderly person – an elderly religious person. Hence, a life of prayer, of reflection, of reading, of writing in the sense that he answers the correspondence he receives; of conversations, of meetings with persons who are close to him, whom he gladly meets, with whom he considers it useful to converse, who ask him for advice or spiritual closeness. Hence, it is the life of a spiritually rich person, of great experience, in a discreet relation with others … What does not exist is the public dimension to which we were accustomed when he was Pope and was, therefore, always on television screens, before the attention of the whole world. This doesn’t exist, but as for the rest, he lives a normal life of relations. And among these relations is the relation with his Successor, his relation with Pope Francis that, as we know, has moments of meeting, of dialogue … one has gone to the other’s house and vice versa. And then there are the other forms of contact which can be the telephone or messages that are sent: an altogether normal situation of relation, I would say, of solidarity. I think it is very lovely for us, when we have those rare images of the two Popes together and praying together – the present Pope and the Pope Emeritus. It is a very beautiful and encouraging sign of the continuity of the Petrine ministry in the service of the Church.
Finally, Father Lombardi, you followed Benedict XVI throughout his Pontificate. What is Pope Benedict giving to you now, personally, spiritually since last February 11?
Father Lombardi: Well I feel Pope Benedict XVI’s presence very much, as a strong spiritual presence that accompanies, that uplifts … I think of the great figures of the elderly in the history of the Church and of sacred history. In particular, we all think, for instance, of Simeon, who received Jesus in the Temple and who looked with joy also at his eternal destiny and at the future of the community that continues to walk on this earth. See, we all know the very great value of having the elderly with us, elderly who are rich in wisdom, rich in faith, serene. They are truly a very great help for those who are younger, helping them to go forward, to look to the future with confidence and hope. This is what Benedict XVI is for me – and I believe for the Church: the Great Elderly Man, wise, let’s say pure, holy, who invites us with serenity, because it’s also lovely when one sees it. He truly gives an impression of great spiritual serenity. He has kept his usual smile, in lovely moments when we meet him, and which invites us therefore to go forward on the way, with confidence and hope.
Translation by ZENIT