Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Francis praises Benedict but chides Gänswein, calls Sarah ‘bitter’ in new book

In yet another new interview book to be published tomorrow, Pope Francis opened up about tensions between himself and the private secretary of his predecessor Benedict XVI, German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who he said made things “difficult” for him.

Speaking to Spanish Journalist Javier Martinez-Brocal with ABC Español, Francis addressed comparisons between himself and Benedict, saying such comparisons are normal, and that even Benedict was compared to John Paul II.

However, he said certain things were attributed to Benedict XVI that weren’t true, and voiced his belief that those who saw Benedict’s resignation as “the end of the Church” and as having caused enormous harm had “a position that’s a bit ideological.”

Pope Francis, without giving names, said Benedict once “expelled” someone who spoke badly about him from the Mater Ecclesiae monastery where Benedict resided, “but he did it with gentleness. He was a gentleman.”

Francis said that in turn, he once confided in Benedict that Gänswein, who served as Benedict’s personal secretary throughout his papacy and the years after his resignation, “did some very difficult things to me.”

Offering a concrete example, Pope Francis, without mentioning the name, said he once replaced the head of a Vatican department “and the decision generated some controversy.”

“In the midst of all that noise, the secretary took the initiative to take him to see Benedict, since that person wanted to greet him. Since the pope emeritus was very kind, he accepted,” Francis said, saying the problem was that “they spread the photo of that meeting, as if Benedict was answering my decision.”

“Honestly, it wasn’t right,” he said, saying many people wanted Benedict to be more “forceful” or “directive” in his years of retirement and “enter the game of controversy. But he never did.”

Asked whether he had consulted Benedict XVI about his decision to roll back Benedict’s liberalization of the use of the Traditional Latin Mass, Francis said he never spoke to Benedict about it, but that Benedict once defended him when he was facing criticism over his support for civil unions for gay couples.

Shortly after the controversy over those remarks erupted, Francis said, a group of cardinals went to see Benedict about it, and during the meeting, “Benedict did not become agitated, because he knew perfectly what I thought.”

“He listened to all of them, one by one, and he calmed them and explained,” distinguishing between civil unions and sacramental marriage, telling the cardinals that “this is not a heresy.”

“How he defended me!” Francis said, saying this situation helped him understand that there were people “who were half covered and who took advantage of the slightest opportunity to bite me,” but Benedict “always defended me.”

Pope Francis also touched on tensions with other Benedict supporters, referring specifically to the January 2020 book From the Depths of our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, which was published as having been co-authored by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah.

At the time, the impression was that Benedict was siding with the conservative Sarah in defending priestly celibacy at a time when Pope Francis was weighing proposals to allow limited ordination of married men in some areas of the Amazon, following the 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon.

In the wake of the uproar, “I felt obliged to ask Benedict’s secretary to take a ‘voluntary leave,’ maintaining his position as Prefect of the Papal Household and also his salary,” Francis said.

He described Sarah as “a good man,” and a man of prayer, but said voiced his belief that during his tenure as prefect of the Vatican’s department of liturgy, Sarah was “immediately manipulated by separatist groups.”

“At times I have the impression that working in the Roman Curia made him a little bitter,” he said.

Last year, following the death and funeral of Benedict XVI, Pope Francis sent Gänswein back to his native Diocese of Freiburg in Germany with no official position, seen by many as a direct snub.

Pope Francis’s words were made in a new interview book The Successor on his relationship with Benedict XVI, set to be published by Planeta on April 3.

Speaking generically of his relationship with Benedict, Francis said “he never stopped supporting me,” and that even if Benedict disagreed with something, “he never said it,” and would instead simply draw his attention to other aspects of a given issue.

“If there was a man who went forward, who was progressive, it was him. To the point that, in the time of the Second Vatican Council, he was seen with suspicion. Even the decision to resign was very advanced, very progressive,” he said, praising Benedict as “a great theologian.”

“It has always caught my attention that he was one of the first to dot the i’s at the Second Vatican Council to achieve reform,” he said.

Francis said that while still Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he visited then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger every time he came to Rome, while Ratzinger was prefect of the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to discuss things like episcopal appointments and the abuse crisis.

Benedict, he said, “acted with courage” on the abuse issue, and was serious about cleaning things up.

He recalled how once, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had a meeting with officials of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State to address allegations against disgraced Legionaries of Christ founder, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, and that he had brought a dossier on Maciel to the meeting.

However, after the meeting, he had the dossier shelved, telling his secretary, “take it back to the archive, the other party won.”

(The reference likely was to a conflict between Ratzinger and the Vatican’s then-Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who was close to the Legionaries and opposed taking action against Maciel. Sodano’s role was later made public by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna.)

Despite the setback, Benedict, Francis said, “didn’t put the case aside or let it go. He looked for the right moment and, years later, as pope, the first thing he did was face that question and clean it up. He was a fighter who did not throw in the towel, who did not give up until he finished what he considered just.”

In 2006, as pope, Benedict XVI removed Maciel from active ministry and sentenced him to a life of prayer and penance.

Francis recalled how Benedict, prior to his resignation, defended him in 2011 when mid-level officials in the then-Congregation for Bishops wanted him out of leadership, so had prepared something on his resignation when he reached the retirement age of 75, and had already selected a new name as the next Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Instead of accepting, however, Francis said that Benedict refused, saying, “I don’t know why Cardinal Bergoglio has so many enemies here,” and extended his mandate another two years.

Pope Francis said he believes Benedict’s decision to resign was likely the most consequential decision he made. He said he heard about the resignation shortly after it was announced, and a journalist friend in Rome called him to give him the news and the details as things were happening.

Recalling his first meeting with Benedict XVI after being elected pope, Francis said it was 10 days after his election and that during that conversation, Benedict handed him a box containing documents from the Vatileaks scandal.

Benedict suggested people he thought should be removed from their positions, Francis said, saying he took these suggestions.

Francis said he never took seriously reports of tensions between he and Benedict, calling them “nonsense. I didn’t get into them.”

He said he met with Benedict regularly, and that they discussed various things, such as the controversial “Synodal Path” reform process in Germany.

Pope Francis said he showed Benedict a June 2019 letter he had written to the leadership of the German Bishops’ conference warning that the process risked breaking Church unity, saying, “Benedict said that it was one of the most relevant and also most profound documents that I had written.”

“We spoke about everything, with a lot of freedom,” he said.

Speaking of Benedict XVI’s passing, Francis recalled how he found out Benedict was not doing well through a nurse treating him, and that he had gone to visit Benedict after concluding his weekly general audience, during which he asked faithful to pray for Benedict.

He said that he sat with Benedict for a while, said some tender words, and gave him a blessing, but that while leaving with the nurse who informed him of Benedict’s precarious health, one of the doctors present looked at the nurse disapprovingly and called them “a spy.”

“The attitude of those doctors was to keep everything closed. In some way, it made me understand that they had Benedict almost ‘in custody,’” he said.

Asked whether he would name Benedict XVI a doctor of the Church, a prestigious title given to saints seen as having made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine, Pope Francis said that right now the process of bestowing that honor is stalled.

“There is a sickness of religious congregations, which is to request that their founders be named doctors of the Church. I stopped it because, if we start giving this title to everyone, it loses its meaning,” he said, but added that Benedict “of course has the category to be one.”

Regarding rumors that he is planning to reform the rules governing how conclaves function, Francis said “there is nothing to this,” and that while all popes in the past century have modified the conclave in some way, he doesn’t see a need to do so.

In terms of future resignations from the papacy, the pope voiced his belief that “it depends on each person.”

“Right now, this door is open…this possibility always existed, but Benedict opened it. Some ask me if I am planning to resign. It’s possible, but for the moment I don’t feel the need,” he said.