(C) Benodette


Father Benedict had hardly made it to the sofa in his living room when he said it was "utter nonsense" that he had interfered in the debate in the recent Synod of Bishops concerning the admission of divorced persons to Communion. Rather, he said: "I try to be as quiet as possible."

The 87-year-old pope emeritus lives secluded in the monastery of Mater Ecclesiae, a building dating from the nineties which was renovated for him. The walls are covered in roses and vines and behind them are bright rooms lit my large windows. From his living room window Father Benedict looks through autumn-coloured leaves at the dome of St. Peter's Basilica.

Since his resignation late February 2013 he has appeared in public only three times at the invitation of successor Francis (Actually 4 times – the Consistory in February, the Canonisation of John Paul II and John XXIII in April, the event for the elderly in September and the beatification of Paul VI in October. He also participated in the blessing of the statue of St Michael in the  Vatican gardens, although that was a more private event.) He seems stronger than when he left office and in the months immediately following. In the house he does not need a cane to walk.

He is slow and a little bent; but his eyes flash, and he is quick-witted, speaking in his Bavarian accented voice. He still wears the white robe of a Pope, but he wears brown leather sandals and white socks instead of red shoes.

He does not want to be seen as a Pope. Despite his fairly solitary life, he receives regular visits. Bishops want to see him, also his publisher Manuel Herder and old friends from Bavaria. - Benedict is also has more contact with Pope Francis than is generally known. Benedict says only: "We have a very good contact."

He does not want to compete with Francis and Father Benedict says "he has such a strong presence, that I could never compare physically and mentally with my feeble powers".

The faithful he says are also quite clear "who the real pope is," Benedict regrets that he did not make a formal differentiation with the title. He had wanted to be called "Father Benedict" or "Padre Benedetto," after his retirement but he was too tired and too weak and at the time enforce that wish. (Who bullied him into taking the title Pope Emeritus and why? Is that person still putting pressure on him for other things?)

The author asked if he should write that.

"Yes, do that; maybe it will help". (This clearly indicates that Benedict is deeply troubled by attempts to be loyal to him rather than to Francis, This is not what he wants.)

Journalists do not often get to interview Benedict. But this time he asked his visitor to write this and that. It is important to him that people know that he does not want to be seen as a shadow Pope, interfering in Church debates even against Francis’ position. (Conservatives should note this)

Maybe he wants this now because Volume Four of his collected writings has been published in which his essay "On the question of the indissolubility of marriage" is reprinted from 1972. Father Benedict has "completely rewritten" the conclusions. In the original essay he had written, in certain cases, people in a second marriage may be admitted to Communion in line with "the tradition”. Now Benedict no longer affirms that the divorced and remarried may partake of the sacrament under certain conditions.

But it was still nonsense; Father Benedict says again, that he wanted to engage in the current debate. He had written this essay back in August, months before the start of the Synod, and there is "nothing new" in it. "I wrote much more drastic things as Prefect of the Congregation” in line with what Pope John Paul II” wanted and represented.

(By August of 2014 this issue was already being fiercely debated with battle lines clearly drawn – Muller, the editor of the Opera Omnia, notably being fiercely opposed to any change. It is obvious that a re-written essay on this topic, appearing as it does so close to the 2014 Synod, is going to be seized upon by those opposed to change as an “intervention” by the retired Pope. I cannot fathom why Benedict did not see this and refuse to include the essay in the current volume which is supposed to be dedicated to his most important work – Introduction to Christianity. The addition of this essay – and it must have been a last minute addition - makes that volume over 700 pages long and totally diverts attention away from the main subject. It was a senseless thing to do if there was any wish to stay out of the debate!

In my opinion Ratzinger was pressured into rewriting and including this article so as to derail Kaspar’s argument, just as he was pressured into being called Pope Emeritus when he wanted to be Father Benedict. In allowing the essay to be included Ratzinger appears complicit in an attempt to seriously influence the debate and the eventual outcome. Ratzinger’s protests to the contrary here are rather heart-breaking. Once again he appears to be clearing up the mess after others have upset the apple-cart)

Ratzinger says it is important that the divorced and remarried are helped in their religious practice and that should not carry a heavier burden than is necessary. He quotes from the Apostolic Exhortation "Familiaris Consortio" of John Paul II published in 1981, which wants a pastoral approach which does not exclude the divorced and remarried and allows them to really feel the love of the Church.

Those couples should be able to join church committees and be godparents, (Francis agrees with this) Father Benedict writes in his new conclusions at the end of the revised article from 1972. It now appears in the fourth volume of the Collected Works; which has become a thick book of 700 pages. Benedict sneers about the fact that no one would have found those sentences in such a big volume unless they were looking for them. ( but of course they would look for them!)

The winter sun filters gently through the through windows and white curtains onto the white hair of Benedict. He also sits on a white sofa with a coffee table in front of it. On the long wall is part of the papal library. And there is a big television, because Benedict watches the Italian evening news, and sometimes even a movie. There are paintings with spiritual themes decorating the white walls, and a crucifix also hangs there. He says he is very thankful to God that he is still so well.

Now he can pray, read and think, and prepare a short sermon every Sunday but he does not want to write anymore, says Benedict as he looks at his hands. On the right ring finger he wears a gold bishop's ring, which was given to him by Paul VI. Around his neck is a gold-silver pectoral cross like those he has given to many bishops during his pontificate.

He can talk to friends and maintain friendships. He was so relieved to be rid of the burden of his office: He no longer has to write speeches and travel. To remain in office, he says, "would not have been honest."

On the coffee table there is an Advent wreath; and already one candle is burning heralding Christmas. In Bavaria that is the most beautiful of all the feasts of the Christian year. It has been the most important for Benedict ever since his childhood in Marktl, even if Easter is theologically more important. He remembers the sparkle of snow and ice; the sound of songs and orchestral music, the special liturgy in the Mass. We celebrate the incarnation of God in the West at Christmas, while the eastern churches celebrate at the Epiphany of the Lord and Jesus' baptism in the Jordan. It is the same mystery, but approached from two different angles.

Benedict's thoughts go to the Holy Land where Jesus lived and "in his footprint the mystery of the divine incarnation is confirmed". Of course you do not need to go to the Holy Land to feel the Spirit, says Father Benedict. But Jesus was not just spirit his presence is dated. He existed and "this earthy dimension is still useful for people of faith."

The agreed half hour is already over. However, Benedict does not hurry a goodbye, even if one is aware that in the kitchen lunch is being prepared. A box is offered which contains a bronze medal on red velvet.

The medal shows a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI in front of the dome of St. Peter; and there are also two cards with a picture of him as Pope. They were prepared for the trip to Cuba in March 2012: "You can you have it you like; even though one should not enhance the cult of personality" says Benedict with a roguish smile as he rises with some difficulty to shake hands.

Father Benedict remains in the room. Visitors take the elevator to one floor down. In the kitchen work goes on the table for the community is laid in the dining room. In the hallway hangs Benedict’s white quilted jacket. After lunch he will probably go briefly to feed the cats. At four o’clock there is usually a short stroll in the garden. Outside the door, there is a wooden bench from Etzelbach, which Benedict XVI visited during his last trip to Germany in 2011. It bears the inscription: "Where is God – there is a future."
A visit with Father Benedict