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This is the journalist who created Pope’s new book

Pope Francis receives a Panamanian flag from journalists Javier Martinez-Brocal

Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Pope Francis receives a Panamanian flag from journalists Javier Martinez-Brocal (L)

I.Media - published on 04/04/24

Spanish reporter Javier Martínez-Brocal talks about the context of the interview and shares personal insights derived from his interviews with the Pope.

On April 3, 2024, Spanish reporter Javier Martínez-Brocal published in Spanish a book-interview with Pope Francis under the title El Sucesor (“The Successor”), not yet translated into English. In a series of interviews conducted between July 2023 and January 2024, Pope Francis looks back on his relationship with Benedict XVI and pays tribute to his theological depth and loyalty.

Javier Martínez-Brocal, Rome correspondent for the Spanish daily ABC, tells I.MEDIA how he sees the historical continuity between the two popes.

Is this book a response to the current climate of division in the Church?

Javier Martínez-Brocal: That was indeed my intention. I suggested to Pope Francis that we do this interview because I had the impression that the memory of Benedict XVI was in some way “kidnapped,” appropriated by one sector of the Church. Some people have come to believe that if you like Benedict XVI, that means you don’t like Pope Francis, and vice versa. This seems to me to be an useless deduction.

So the idea of the book was to remind us that every pope is the Successor of Peter, and that he is therefore the pope of all. Neither Pope Benedict nor Pope Francis arrived here to pursue their personal interests!

Pope Francis: a freer, simpler papacy

In these interviews, Pope Francis mentions some surprising details about the end of Benedict XVI’s life, in particular suggesting that the ailing Emeritus was over-protected by his secretary and doctors … By talking about it so head-on, is he implicitly talking about himself, about his absolute refusal to be “imprisoned” by protocol, even when he reaches the end of his life?

Martínez-Brocal: Indeed, he does everything he can to prevent that from happening. When I asked him if he’d leave any instructions, for example about burning his personal documents, he said no, he’d take care of that himself!

He doesn’t want anyone to make decisions in his name, and this has been very clear since the beginning of the pontificate. For him, to be protected would be to be imprisoned. That’s also why, in terms of communication, he doesn’t want a spokesperson or an interface, preferring to maintain direct contact with journalists.

Did the rites that followed Benedict XVI’s death, notably the exposition of the body in St. Peter’s Basilica, mark the end of a certain image of the papacy, with a solemnity from which Pope Francis would like to distance himself?

Martínez-Brocal: Indeed, he wants to dismantle everything that is related to a monarchy, a court… He doesn’t want his body to be shown. He wants to be buried like a simple Christian, and like the successor of Peter, who was buried simply.

He wants to return to a certain simplicity and ensure that the figure of the pope is recognized for its spiritual character, without excess. He also seeks to give more freedom to his successors: his constant effort to preserve his freedom is also aimed at giving more leeway to those who will come after him.

He was elected at a time when the Church was reeling from Benedict XVI’s resignation. The message Francis wanted to get across was that popes can indeed step down, but they must not be forced by circumstances to resign.

Benedict XVI could no longer govern because his entourage protected him too much. With his very humble character, he didn’t want to cause anyone problems, he wanted to obey all criteria, but this ultimately prevented him from fully exercising his function.

The body of Benedict XVI lies in state in St. Peter’s Basilica

Keeping the focus on Christ

Pope Francis’ homily at his predecessor’s funeral was surprisingly brief … How did he explain this?

Martínez-Brocal: His homily may indeed have seemed cold at first, just as it did at the canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II. But he believes that homilies should remain focused on liturgical texts and not be panegyrics, eulogies of his predecessors. As for Benedict XVI’s funeral Mass, he simply wanted to show how this Christian could help other Christians live their faith. 

So I think it was a mistake to interpret it as a sign of distance. On the contrary, Pope Francis considered that he was speaking to adult Christians, for whom there was no need to remind them who Benedict XVI was, since everyone knew! Instead, he simply wanted to redirect attention to Jesus, drawing on extracts from Joseph Ratzinger’s texts. 

Pope Francis’ relationship with Ratzinger before and after ’05

Pope Francis reveals important details about the 2005 conclave. Does it finally emerge that Cardinal Bergoglio gave his direct support to the election of Cardinal Ratzinger?

Martínez-Brocal: On the plane back from Brazil in 2013, Pope Francis had said that he had been very happy with the election of Cardinal Ratzinger in 2005, but he had never made it clear that he had voted for him.

Cardinals dressed in scarlet vestments standing before the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica to participate in the solemn Mass ”pro eligendo pontifice” on April 18, 2005, which opened the rites of the conclave to elect the successor of John Paul II.

By clearly saying in this interview, “He was my candidate,” he takes a step forward. It makes it clear that he had the future of the Catholic Church in his hands. If he had agreed to respond favorably to the maneuvers of those who wanted to make him a “papabile” against Ratzinger, there would have been no pontificate of Benedict XVI, no resignation, no Pope Francis after all that … The tone of his own pontificate was indeed linked to the renunciation of his predecessor.

He realized that he was being instrumentalized by a group, and he didn’t want to play along. He was sensitive to the question of unity, and it would have been humiliating for him to become an instrument of disunity. And his attitude conditioned the rest of the Church’s history. If Cardinal Bergoglio hadn’t supported Cardinal Ratzinger, the latter would have withdrawn, and an Italian cardinal whose name had not yet featured prominently in the polls would probably have been chosen. 

What was their relationship during Benedict XVI’s pontificate?

Martínez-Brocal: Before 2005, Cardinal Bergoglio considered Cardinal Ratzinger to be the most honest person in the Roman Curia, and enjoyed meeting him at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Bergoglio was subsequently grateful to Benedict XVI for extending his term of office beyond his 75th birthday, in 2011. He saw this decision as a mark of confidence, at a time when part of the Curia had maneuvered against him. 

A few years earlier, it was also against the advice of the Curia and the Secretariat of State that he managed to arrange for Benedict XVI to attend the Aparecida meeting in person, which was a powerful gesture. However, the German pope did not sign the final document, apparently because of Rome’s reservations about promoting basic ecclesial communities.

Papal continuity

Benedict XVI often stressed the theme of “hermeneutics of continuity” between popes before and after the Council. How does Francis interpret this theme?

Martínez-Brocal: I titled this book The Successor, thinking of Francis as the successor of Benedict XVI, but then I realized that he is above all the successor of Peter. The Pope’s role is to translate into today’s context the mandate entrusted by Jesus to Peter almost 2000 years ago.

By chance, I came across a very beautiful catechesis by John Paul II on the Petrine ministry, in which he explained that the keys of St. Peter serve “to open, not to close.” I shared this text with Pope Francis, who really appreciated the image. 

I think the pope’s ministry is to help humanity meet God, so this draws a line of continuity, but the methods are inevitably different in different eras. Even in contemporary times, it’s obvious that Francis can’t act in the style of Paul VI, for example. The world has changed. And the most striking element of discontinuity that has occurred … It was Benedict XVI who brought it about, with his resignation, considering that the pattern of a papacy for life was no longer appropriate. 

This book provides an insight into the theological and philosophical richness of Pope Francis, and his sources of inspiration, including German culture. Can we say that the theologian and philosopher Romano Guardini (1885-1968), often cited by Joseph Ratzinger and on whom Jorge Mario Bergoglio had begun a thesis, constitutes an intellectual bridge between Benedict XVI and Francis?

Martínez-Brocal: It’s a point that needs to be put into perspective. I haven’t found any contributions or writings by Joseph Ratzinger on the precise subject of the thesis Jorge Mario Bergoglio began in Germany, on Gegensatz, the concept of overcoming “polarization” in Romano Guardini’s thought. But both share a common appreciation for this author. There’s a common intellectual root.

I believe that in the 1980s, Fr. Bergoglio turned his attention to Romano Guardini’s thought after personally suffering due to internal divisions within the Society of Jesus in Argentina. He found in him a coherent way of thinking about “polar” oppositions, in order to articulate the idea that we can have different thoughts without being opposed.

This reflection helps us to think of the pontificates of Benedict XVI and Francis in terms of complementarity rather than opposition, and it also helps us to find our bearings in an increasingly fragmented and polarized world.


InterviewsPopePope Benedict XVIPope Francis
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