The Pope in the Middle: What Benedict Thinks About John Paul II and Francis

By Ines Murzaku Published on October 11, 2016

In his new book The Last Testament, we see Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as a deeply humble, reserved, contemplative and theologically brilliant man, small and fragile in stature compared to both his dynamic and brilliantly energetic predecessor and successor. What does he think about the two, St. John Paul II and Pope Francis? The book, a much anticipated book-length interview, tells us. Released already in German and Italian, it will be published in English in mid-November.

Benedict and John Paul II

Karol Woytila and Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, forged a strong friendship over decades. They had both been at Vatican II, Woytila as a bishop and Ratzinger as a theological advisor (though they didn’t meet then). Woytila had expressed enthusiasm reading Ratzinger’s classic Introduction to Christianity which came out in 1968. He found Ratzinger’s theology to be orthodox and clear.

In 1978, Joseph Ratzinger, then Cardinal of Munich, and Karol Woytila, then Cardinal of Krakow, finally met after the death of Paul VI at the conclave, the meeting to elect the next pope. Their first-hand experiences with dictatorial regimes in Germany and Poland respectively, and contemplating ways to fight these regimes, contributed to their bond.

According to the interview, Benedict heard Woytila speak before the meeting “and was impressed.” The Polish cardinal gave “the impression of a reflective man, with a significant philosophical training and at the same time devout, cordial, and benevolent.” This first impression was further confirmed when they met in person. Woytila was “cultured and gifted with a sense of humor.” They first spoke in German, a language Woytila spoke fluently and had studied since his first year of high school.

Ratzinger played a positive role in the next conclave, held just seven weeks later after the unexpected death of Pope John Paul I. That conclave elected Woytila, whom Ratzinger saw as a unifier of East and West. Little time passed before John Paul II told Ratzinger that he wanted him in Rome. Ratzinger accepted upon one condition, as he says in the book: “only if I am permitted to publish books.” The professor in him, who felt the “need to say something to humanity,” was obviously speaking.

On November 25, 1981, Pope John Paul II nominated Ratzinger to lead the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican agency often called the Vatican’s “doctrinal watchdog.” He held this position — and continued to publish books — until his election as pope on April 8, 2005. By then, the two had known and worked closely with each other for almost 25 years.

Though They Did Not Always Agree

They did not always agree. Benedict admits that there were differences between him and John Paul II regarding the 1986 “World Day of Prayer for Peace,” held in Assisi. Initially, Ratzinger had some reservations about the event and the backlash it might cause, if it encouraged religious syncretism, relativism and even religious indifference.

In August 2000 the Vatican had issued a document entitled Dominus Iesus (“The Lord Jesus”), signed by Ratzinger. The document was a defense of the Church’s traditional teaching, underlining the doctrine that the Church is the unique means of salvation. Nonetheless, upon the pope’s request, he participated in world Day of Prayer in Assisi in 2002. He would reflect that the biggest lesson JPII “had taught him [was] to have a wider perspective on inter-religious dialogue.”

John Paul II’s more open and philosophical vision widened Ratzinger’s horizon and take on things, especially in the dimension of inter-religious dialogue, which he took to heart and put into practice. Following John Paul II, the first pope to speak in a mosque, Benedict became the second: in 2006 the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, and then at the Hussein bin-Talal mosque in the Jordanian capital of Amman in 2009.

He was also the second pope to participate in a Protestant religious function. On March 14, 2010, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the joint declaration between Catholics and Lutherans on the doctrine of justification, he visited the Church of Christ, the Lutheran church of the German community in Rome.

Benedict and Francis

Benedict makes only a few references to Pope Francis in the book. Francis, he says, “is the man of practical reform,” but also “a man who reflects and meditates on actual things.” He views Francis as a man of action, with exceptional organizational skills. He admits this was not his strength, although both of them had been archbishops running large dioceses. Benedict recalls him as a very firm and decisive man, one who spoke with great resoluteness in Argentina, saying “This is to be done and this is not to be done.”

Nobody thought of the Argentinian then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as the next pope, Benedict explains, but he takes his election as something significant in the history of the Church. The Church is ever dynamic, open to new perspectives, developments, changes and challenges.

At the conclave choosing his successor, it was the time for South America to take the lead as the greatest Catholic continent but also the one that has suffered the most. He sees in Francis the perfect equilibrium and infusion of the old with the new continent, given Bergoglio’s Italian immigrant roots.

One cannot miss Benedict’s self-criticism, “maybe I was not among the people as effectively,” in comparison to Francis who wants to be surrounded by people all the time. He views John Paul II and Francis as people’s popes, tireless men who never stopped being with people while himself as more reserved and timid, different or with a different charism. (A charism is a special gift or power God gives to someone to help him exercise his particular calling.)

He commends Francis for his courage “to face problems and find solutions,” which is Francis’s charism. Francis does not use highly theoretical road maps. For him solutions are based on practice: “paths open while walking.” In Francis, says Benedict, “There is new freshness within the church, a new joy, new charism which appeals to men, and this is a beautiful thing.” He does not sound frightened or concerned for the future.

Benedict sees continuity in the pontificate of Francis. Although the charisma and the style are different from John Paul II’s and from his, the pontiffs’ priorities are the same: to preserve and transmit the Christian faith to a world that desperately needs it.

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