Monsignor Alfred Xuereb explains some details about Pope Benedict XVI's resignation and his five years of retirement
“Before Pope Francis went out before the whole world, appearing on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, he wanted to call Pope Benedict to greet him,” said Monsignor Alfred Xuereb to Vatican Radio’s Alessandro Gisotti. Xuereb was Pope Benedict XVI’s second private secretary for five and a half years, starting in 2007.
“We were in the television room, where the telephone is always in silent mode, so we didn’t hear the call. That explains why Pope Francis took some time to go out. Afterwards, they called us again during dinner, and they asked us where we’d been… There in front of the TV… They told us that Pope Francis was going to call again after dinner, and so it was. I passed the telephone to Benedict, and I heard him say, ‘Holiness, from this moment on, I promise you my total obedience and my prayers.’ Those are moments that I cannot forget,” Msgr. Xuereb says.
Xuereb, who is currently the Secretary General of the Secretariat for Economy, emphasized that Benedict XVI’s decision to renounce the Petrine ministry was an heroic act of love for the Church—a gesture whose greatness is being understood more and more. February 11 will be the fifth anniversary of his resignation; today, Pope Ratzinger lives his retirement in the small Mater Ecclesiae monastery inside the Vatican.
The interview with Xuereb was published by Vatican News in Italian today, after the publication (on Wednesday, February 8) of Benedict XVI’s letter sent to the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera. In the letter, the 90-year-old Pope Emeritus expresses his gratitude for the concern of the faithful for the condition of his health on this “last stretch of the way” and his “pilgrimage to Home”
These years of service and prayer are the greatest gift that he is offering the Church, as Benedict XVI himself said. He is staying within “the enclosure of Peter.” “He wanted to make the decision to live a retired life precisely so he could prepare himself for the final encounter with the Lord; in the meantime, he is living a profound spirituality, offering prayers and also offering up the fragility of his health; he offers them for the Church—for the pope and for the Church.”
In the year during which he was Pope Francis’ secretary, Msgr. Xuereb observed up-close the mutual appreciation that the pope and pope emeritus feel for each other:
“Pope Francis gave the right definition right away: ‘We have the privilege of having our ‘grandfather’ in the house.’ So, we have a living historical memory we can turn to. I’m sure that Pope Francis does this. Then, of course, their gestures speak as well.”
“I have many memories of Pope Benedict, and I don’t want to forget them, so I can keep the memory of those years alive, of that period I lived at his side… What are the most intense moments? Of course, those related to his resignation. I remember very well, on February 5, 2013, when Pope Benedict invited me to take a seat in his private study and announced to me the major decision of his resignation.”
“I thought of asking him to think it over a little more, but almost immediately I stopped myself, because I was sure that he had prayed a long time about it. Not only that; right at that moment, I remembered a detail.”
“During a fairly long period of time, when he would be in the sacristy before celebrating Mass in his private chapel, he would remain in prayer for a long time; and despite the ringing of the bells that indicated the moment to start the Mass, he stayed recollected before the Crucifix in the sacristy. I was convinced that he was praying for something very important. That February 5, when I heard Pope Benedict sharing his great decision with me, I thought, ‘So then, surely he was praying about this!'”
Then, of course, another intense moment was when he publicly announced his resignation during that Consistory on February 11.
“I cried the whole time, and also during lunch; he understood that I was deeply moved, and I asked him, ‘Holy Father, were you tranquil, serene?’ And he answered me firmly, ‘Yes,’ because he had already pondered it in meditation and prayer. He was peaceful precisely because he was sure that he had weighed the matter well in peace and in God’s will!”
Then, the moment came when Msgr. Xuereb said goodbye to Benedict XVI, with his blessing, so as to be Pope Francis’ secretary:
“A very powerful moment for me was when we said goodbye, because he repeated to me, ‘You will go with the new pope.’ Because, when Pope Francis was elected, he wrote him a letter reiterating his willingness to make me available in case I was needed.”
“And, when the day came to leave Castel Gandolfo to go with Pope Francis—from the Secretariat of State, they told me, ‘Hurry up, pack your bags, because Pope Francis is opening his correspondence by himself!’—I entered Pope Benedict’s study to give him the news, and I asked him, crying, for his blessing. He very serenely got up; I knelt, and he gave me his blessing, and with that he let me go.”
Msgr. Xuereb also remembers seeing Benedict XVI last October:
“He invited me for my birthday, to celebrate Mass and then have breakfast. I found him with a very active mind; he asked me many things… With his gaze, he told me, ‘I am very happy to see you again!’ He also remembered very well details about my family, my mother, even my mother’s cats! Of course, physically he is very fragile. He is almost 91 years old, and nevertheless, by mother who is ‘only’ 82 isn’t in his condition.”
During these five years, how has Benedict XVI’s surprising decision been understood?
“It was a generous gesture. He understood, particularly on the flight to Mexico, that he could no longer take long trips. The World Youth Day in Brazil was already drawing near, and he realized that he couldn’t handle all that effort anymore… He performed an heroic act, in my opinion, because he thought about the Church first of all, about his love for the Church, which was much greater than his love for himself, for his ego. He didn’t care what some people or sectors of society might say about him—maybe that he didn’t have the courage to go on… He always remained serene, once he understood that God was asking him for this act of governance, loving the Church more than himself.”