Pope Benedict XVI reportedly resigned in 2013 due to chronic insomnia from which he suffered during most of his pontificate. This is what the late pope claims in an unpublished letter signed just two months before his death, on October 28, 2022, and sent to his biographer Peter Seewald shortly before his death. The German Catholic agency KNA revealed the existence of the text on January 27, 2022, which is to be published in full in the Saturday January 28 edition of the German magazine Focus.
In order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
In his resignation declaration, given in Latin, Benedict said that strength was needed to govern the Church and that he no longer had enough. On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI thus explained to the cardinals gathered in the Vatican in consistory why he decided to give up his office. However, the precise reasons for this loss of strength had never been described by the pontiff.
In May 2020, in an interview with Peter Seewald published in his biography, the Pontiff Emeritus still only mentioned health problems that had led his doctor to prohibit him from any long trip after a trip to Mexico in 2012. He also confided that at the time he was convinced he would die shortly after his renunciation.
In the unpublished letter, the Pope Emeritus explains to the same Peter Seewald the “main reason” for his resignation: “the insomnia that [has] accompanied him without interruption since the World Youth Day in Cologne” – his first trip as Pope, in August 2005.
To combat this problem, his doctor prescribed “powerful remedies” that worked for a time but eventually “reached their limits.”
In the recent book published by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who was the Pope’s secretary for nearly 20 years, the archbishop recounts an exchange between Benedict XVI and Pope Francis about their sleep: “Pope Francis told him one day that he slept only six hours, like a stone. And Benedict replied with a sad smile: ‘It’s a gift that his predecessor unfortunately did not have!”
The accident in Mexico
The 265th pope confides in the unpublished letter that he had an accident during the first night – from March 23 to 24, 2012, – of his trip to Cuba and Mexico, an event that Archbishop Gänswein also recounted in his book. The Pontiff writes that in the morning he found his handkerchief “totally soaked with blood.”
With no memory of the incident, he believes he “must have hit something” in his bathroom and fallen. “A few stitches were needed to stitch up the wound,” his secretary testified in his book about the incident, saying that the Pontiff had slipped on his bath mat.
His personal physician later linked the incident to the sleeping pills he prescribed, and pushed for him to have a free morning during each day he would spend abroad from then on, the Pope explained in his letter. These restrictions, in the eyes of Benedict XVI, “could only be applied for a short period of time.”
A new pope for WYD in Rio
As the WYD in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, approached in July 2013, the Pontiff felt he would not be able to “manage” the event. He explained that he then decided to step down so that a “new pope” could go to Rio in his place.
For the recipient of the letter, Peter Seewald, these statements put an end to speculation about the reasons for the Pope’s resignation.
Commentators have wanted to link the resignation of the German pontiff to scandals related to the finances of the Roman Curia during his pontificate, especially after the Vatileaks affair. Some have even suggested blackmail as a result of these leaks, a theory that the biographer particularly rejects.