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A cardinal-friend of Benedict reflects on a life of the heart (Interview)



I.Media - published on 01/10/23

I was not surprised that his last words were "Lord, I love you," because this was the ring of his whole life. His faith was not only intellectual and cultural, it was also an expression of the life of the heart. "I believe."

Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, current grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, was a close collaborator of Benedict XVI, first from 2007 to 2011 as Substitute of General Affairs for the Secretary of State – a position comparable to that of an “interior minister” in layman’s terms – and then as Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, in charge of mission territories, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

A few months after defending Benedict XVI after the Munich report, Cardinal Filoni spoke with I.MEDIA about his collaboration and friendship with the German pontiff. 

How was your work organized with Benedict XVI? What were his methods?

When I was Substitute, I had a frequent and continuous relationship with the Pope, to whom I submitted various problems that came to us in the Secretariat of State. This allowed me to get to know certain aspects of Pope Benedict’s thinking, and to develop a deep esteem, a consideration for this man, who was both an intellectual and a pastor. He had all these virtues in him. I loved the words of Pope Francis when he said that his predecessor was “a noble man, a person of elevated spirituality.”

As the person in charge of “Propaganda Fide,” I then had the ecclesial oversight of more than 1,200 dioceses, especially the young Churches, the lands of evangelization. In this office I saw the pastoral capacity of Pope Benedict, who trusted his collaborators, which is an important thing. If there’s no trust between the Pope and his collaborators, everything works less well. I saw his high level as a pastor to face the problems that were brought to us from the different dioceses under our responsibility.

That’s how I got to know his way of approaching these realities in a concrete way. I’ll never forget his words on returning from a pastoral visit to Africa, on the occasion of the presentation of his exhortation after the second Synod on Africa, which was held in 2009. Benedict XVI said, “How beautiful is the joy of faith that I discovered in Africa, and which we have lost.” He wasn’t expressing a bitter reflection, but his wonder at seeing a faith that is joyful in its simplicity. 

Did you keep a connection with him after his resignation?

Yes, this relationship was maintained, with great personal esteem, and convivial moments when I went to see him at the monastery. He offered me many books, with friendship and gratitude. Our relationship was built in the service of the Church, and was maintained in a mutual humanity. His books, which I keep like treasures, link theology with anthropology, a certain way of approaching humanity.

How did Benedict XVI analyze the drama of sexual abuse of minors, which marked his pontificate and obviously caused him great suffering?

From the moment that this problem manifested itself in the Church, he could not and did not know how to consider it as a time bomb, or as a simple problem to be dealt with, but as a theological question: the way God educates us, the depth of what comes out of our conscience and which we do not even know, with a God who comes to our rescue. 

I also remember his encounters with victims of abuse, with his discretion as a sensitive man who didn’t want to “press” on the wounds but rather to express the caress of God, who loves, who forgives. 

He had a finely anthropological approach, first of all towards the victims, but also a soteriological approach, placing himself in a theology of salvation and redemption. It’s not enough to say to a sick person, “You’re sick, you have this disease”; it’s also necessary to know how to say, “There’s a remedy for you.” In this way he revealed all the richness of his abilities, inviting us to look upwards, towards God: God, while enlightening us about the depth of our sin, is also the only one who saves us. This is a very important dimension in the Church, because if we only see the scandal without seeking salvation, we lose our ecclesial mission, we no longer give hope. 

The images of his trips show that he was working in a different language and rhythm than his political interlocutors. In this sense, did he bring something “liberating” to the tensions of the world?

I participated in several important trips. Each one had its own value, but his trips must be analyzed in their overall dynamic, in connection with his ecclesial vision. The choice of places and countries was a catechesis in itself, especially from a Mariological perspective. 

Fatima was an important trip, because he had worked on the question of the apparitions of Fatima with John Paul II, exploring important, beautiful, profound aspects. He also loved Lourdes, a place that represented for him the mystery of God who opens himself, which was the heart of his theological message. This shrine represented for him the image of a God who is not indifferent, of a God who kneels down beside humanity. 

He also expressed the richness of his faith and Marian theology when he visited smaller shrines, such as Santa Maria di Leuca, from where he looked out over the Mediterranean Sea, thinking of what was on the other side: Africa, the Holy Land… And he pointed out that Mary was accompanying the lives of the peasants, the simple people, with icons in the streets. He saw this as a great theological wealth.

I also remember the WYD in Australia, and the astonishment of the Australians to see such a massive gathering take place without any incident. The same observation was made during his visit to the United States. All of his visits had a theological richness and must be taken as a whole.

So Benedict XVI remained, above all, a professor of theology?

Yes, I remember his great speeches, such as in Regensburg, at the Bernardins. His speeches deserve to be read and reread.

But I felt bitter when the Pope was prevented from going to La Sapienza, the University of Rome. He had been invited in January 2008, but a group of professors refused to listen to him, in a secularist logic. He was shocked to see academics refusing to dialogue. But then he invited the professors of La Sapienza to the Vatican, to make up for the situation. 

What spiritual legacy does he leave to the Church?

First of all, his faith. His more than 70 years of priestly life were turned towards faith. “As for me, I believe.” Pope Benedict was a man of faith, and of a faith that was not passive, that was not just the heritage of someone who was born into a Christian culture, but one that was made conscious every day and that established a relationship with God.

I was not surprised that his last words were “Lord, I love you,” because this was the ring of his whole life. His faith was not only intellectual and cultural, it was also an expression of the life of the heart. “I believe.”

And he was also an attentive man with a sensitivity to the themes of society, with a critical sense. He was not content to criticize a “liquid society,” which believes it has reached the maximum of its technological capacities. But he considered that this reality would be the end of everything if it were uprooted from faith. I remember a discussion in which he reminded me how important it was to remain anchored in faith.

I told him about my experience as a teacher at a high school in Rome, during which I showed the students that in order to catch an object with a rope, it was absolutely necessary to find an anchor point: Without this, the knot could not hold and the rope would slip. This plastic example matched his vision. For him, this anchor point, which made it possible to construct a coherent representation of life in society, was the ethics that link us to God.

Pope Benedict XVI
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