The priest who was the Vatican spokesman for most of Benedict XVI's pontificate reflects on his gifts and legacy.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi has a unique insight into Benedict XVI, as man and pope. Father Lombardi was the Vatican spokesman for almost the whole of Benedict’s pontificate.
He was appointed in July 2006 to succeed Joaquín Navarro-Valls, a layman who had held the post for 22 years. He then served as director of the Vatican press office until Pope Francis accepted his resignation in 2016. Thus in those 10 years, he exercised the role throughout the historic phase of a papal resignation, conclave, and the unique beginnings of a time in the Church with a Pope and a Pope Emeritus.
Aleteia asked Fr. Lombardi to reflect with us on the legacy of Benedict XVI.
Tell us your impressions of that moment when Benedict XVI, at the age of 85, boarded the white helicopter and left his position as pontiff forever.
It was a very emotional moment and also a historic moment because never before in our time had the resignation of a living pontiff taken place. These are images that remain historical. For me, however, the crucial moment was Benedict’s declaration of his resignation on February 11 (2013). I remember his declaration, which he made live, surprising the cardinals who were present.
Benedict announced his resignation arguing that his “strength, due to advanced age,” was no longer “suited to adequately exercise the Petrine ministry.” How do you remember it?
I experienced it with great serenity, because on the one hand I didn’t consider it a real and total surprise. Those who followed Benedict XVI closely realized that he always carried out his service fully and completely in accordance with the needs, but with increasing physical fatigue, particularly because of matters related to travel or the great celebrations in St. Peter’s, and therefore he reflected on his state of health in order to be able to continue his task well.
The Pope had spoken before the Consistory about resigning …
On the possibility of resigning; for me it was extremely enlightening how the Pope had spoken about it explicitly in the book/interview Light of the World, when questioned by Peter Seewald. When his health and strength were still completely normal, he had said, “If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”
A reasoned choice …
In my opinion it was an entirely reasonable choice made before God in prayer and with responsibility before the Church. Without agitation, not for reasons of fear or spiritual weakness, but for reasons of evaluation of his strength in relation to the task at hand. This is typically “sensible” reasoning, carried out in a climate of faith, which I totally agree with.
What personal feeling did you have about this?
I was always struck by the fact that the pontificate was continuously accompanied by the spiritual and cultural reflections of Benedict XVI, who was able to carry through to the end his great trilogy on Jesus. It was admirable and extraordinary that a pope with all his commitments had the ability and the will to write a work on Jesus, which was something typically pertaining to his theological and spiritual vocation, but also to his commitment as pope to be a witness and support of our faith.
Cardinal J. Ratzinger experienced the pontificate of John Paul II, including his illness. Can we also link his resignation to a “mirror” effect regarding the last years of Wojtyla’s pontificate?
Ratzinger experienced the whole period of John Paul II’s pontificate, and also with particular intensity the whole period of his illness. Therefore, he will have made his own considerations. It seems evident that every pope is different, is himself, has his own experience, and in relationship with God lives his vocation to the service of the Church in a personal way. Ratzinger reflected on the fact that he could experience a prolonged period of infirmity during which the governance of the Church would be affected.
Celestine V resigned after only a few months, on December 13, 1294, during very difficult times for the Church …
In his statement of resignation, Benedict also explained that today’s context, the context in which the pope’s service is exercised in what we can call a globalized world, is one in which historical events happen rapidly, and thus with a continuous need for intervention and decision-making that requires extraordinary energy and physical and psychological strength.
What was the most difficult moment of his pontificate?
One difficult moment in which I was particularly involved was addressing the sexual abuse of minors, which took place during a large part of the pontificate and for which the pope has great merit for the history of the Church, because he faced it without uncertainty and with a great breadth of horizons, both from a juridical and pastoral point of view. Benedict showed the way: Let us remember his letter to the Catholics of Ireland (March 19, 2010), the recognition of crimes of abuse and the errors of bishops; above all he understands the gravity of their suffering and acts with effective canonical interventions.
Benedict XVI had experienced this abuse crisis already when he was a cardinal …
The abuse crisis had already begun to manifest itself at the end of John Paul II’s pontificate, but not with the evidence and clarity with which it then presented itself in an increasing and gradual way. Benedict was faced with almost an explosion, and he did so in a wise, truthful, courageous, and also concrete way by meeting with the victims. He laid the groundwork for dealing with this crisis. Francis continued by taking juridical steps forward as well, drafting important documents such as the recent Vos estis lux mundi (2019). In this regard, he gathered the world’s bishops at the Vatican, and also wrote his two letters to God’s people.
During the apostolic trip to the United States (April 17, 2008), the Pope met for the first time with victims of abuse by Catholic priests.
Benedict has always held his encounters with the victims in an extremely discreet way, as a person with a very deep, attentive, and participatory character, but who is also reserved. Francis is more intense in his emotional and communicative expressions, but Benedict was the first to meet the victims and also to do so systematically during his travels.
Benedict expelled more than 400 priests from the Church for abuse …
In his time as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he had begun to understand the seriousness of these problems. When he became pope he already had a base of experience and knowledge of the matters at hand that made him able to deal with them from a procedural and disciplinary point of view. He had already begun along these lines even in the last years of John Paul II’s pontificate.
In the case of the sexual abuses and abuses of power and conscience perpetrated by Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Benedict XVI ordered a canonical visitation and a spiritual and structural renewal of the congregation of the Legionaries.
Benedict XVI intervened in the issue of the Legionaries very carefully, firmly, and wisely, trying also to preserve what good there could be in the lives and dedication of so many people who had responded to a religious vocation with good intentions.
In the United States and in some European countries, certain ultra-conservative Catholic groups with resources and with ideological motives used Benedict XVI, pointing to him as the only true pontiff.
Benedict resigned. He knew what he was doing, and he did it so that the Church would have a new pope at the height of his powers and strength. Benedict in a sense wanted Pope Francis to exist and paved the way for him. Benedict in no way thought of interfering in the pontificate of his successor. The instrumentalizations of Benedict against Francis are senseless and unfounded positions.
How do you think history will remember Joseph Ratzinger?
I think history will remember him as a theological pope. A servant of the Church who did not seek in any way to be a personal protagonist of historic or extraordinary initiatives compared to his predecessor, who had really performed an infinity of actions, which concluded with a historic Jubilee. Benedict did not perform particularly noticeable acts of government during his pontificate. He will be remembered as a pope of magisterium and continuity in the substance of Church teaching in relation to his predecessor (John Paul II) and his successor (Francis).
Is Benedict not in danger of being remembered only for his resignation?
It is an inevitable fact that he will be remembered for his resignation, but he showed profound humility. After him the road for a pontiff’s resignation is open; it’s easier for those who will come after. It was already there before, but no one had used it. In my opinion, it’s mainly a magisterial pontificate, profound from the point of view of the relationship between faith and culture in today’s world, which becomes an example of humble and selfless service of God and the Church, not tied to the person as such.