[Austen Ivereigh] “My weak point perhaps is a lack of resolve in governing and decision-making,” Benedict XVI says in a book-length interview out today in Italian and German.
“Here, in reality, I am more a professor, one who reflects and meditates on spiritual questions,” the pope emeritus tells his longstanding interviewer, Peter Sewald. “Practical governance was not my forte and this certainly was a weakness.”
Pope Francis, by contrast, “is a man of practical reform” whose personality and experience as a Jesuit provincial and archbishop have enabled him to take practical organizational steps, Benedict says in a book which will bear the English title Last Testament when it is published on 3 November.
(Catholic Voices have add access to an advance copy in Italian. The quotes here are my translations.)
Benedict XVI described how, although he was surprised by Francis’s election — “I did not think he was among the restricted group of candidates” — he knew him well from Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s visits to Rome and from correspondence with him. “I knew him as a very decisive man, one who in Argentina said with great resolve, ‘do this, don’t do that.'”
The retired pope — who is 89, can no longer see out of his left eye, and uses a pacemaker — says he was also struck by Cardinal Bergoglio’s great “cordiality” and his “attentiveness in his dealings with people”.
But he says his election was a surprise, because following the 2005 conclave — when a number of cardinals had sought his election — “people no longer spoke of him.”
“When I first heard his name, I was unsure,” he said, referring to the 2013 conclave. “But when I saw how he spoke with God and with people, I truly was content. And happy.”
In electing the first Jesuit and Latin American as pope, the College of Cardinals showed that “the Church is moving, dynamic, open, with the prospect of new developments before it,” he said, adding: “What is beautiful and encouraging is that even in our day things happen that no one expected that show that the church is alive and brimming with new possibilities.”
Benedict also notes that it was “expected” that, as the world’s largest Catholic continent, with “a Church rich in dynamism” and having “great bishops”, Latin America would assume a greater role in the universal Church.
“In this sense, Latin America’s hour had arrived,” he says.
Despite his characteristic humility and acknowledgement of his weaknesses, Benedict defends his record.
“I don’t see myself as a failure. For eight years I did my service,” he said, noting that many people found their way to faith during his papacy.
He defends, for example, his 2011 decision to replace Ettore Gotti Tedeschi as head of the so-called Vatican Bank, the IOR. He said it was necessary to move the “the previous management” of the bank and not to appoint another Italian, and that it had been his idea to appoint Baron Von Freyberg.
He also describes his dissolution of a so-called “gay lobby” — or network of gay priests who used blackmail to promote and protect each other — in 2012.
“Indeed a group was pointed out to me, in the meantime we have dissolved it,” Benedict said. “This was mentioned in the report by the commission (of three cardinals), who were able to nail down a small group of four or five people maybe, which we dissolved. I don’t know whether something new will form again. In any case, it’s not like there are things like this all over the place.”
In general, however, Benedict does not take the time to list the successes of his pontificate — resolutely tackling the sex-abuse crisis and initiating financial reform, for example (see Crux) — preferring to share reflections on the past and present of the Church.
He dismisses any notion that his 2012 decision to stand down in early 2013 was anything other than a free decision made after careful discernment for the good of the Church.
When he resigned he had the “peace of someone who had overcome difficulty” and “could calmly pass the helm to the one who would come after.”
His admiration and affection for Pope Francis shine out constantly from the text, giving no quarter to traditionalists who have attacked his successor in his name.
Asked specifically if he saw Francis as a “rupture” with his pontificate, Benedict XVI roundly rejects the idea, saying that if in a number of areas Francis did things very differently, when considered in the round “there is no contraposition” between the two pontificates.
The retired pope also talks in the book about his preparations for his death.
“The important thing isn’t imagining it, but living with the knowledge that all our lives are headed toward this encounter,” he said.