Benedict says he did not expect papacy, accepted it as duty to cardinals

This story appears in the Benedict Resigns feature series. View the full series.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, greets Pope John Paul II in 2004 at the Vatican. (CNS/Catholic Press Photo)
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, greets Pope John Paul II in 2004 at the Vatican. (CNS/Catholic Press Photo)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Retired Pope Benedict XVI says he did not expect to be elected to lead the global Catholic church following the 2005 death of his predecessor John Paul II but felt compelled to accept the papacy as a duty to the cardinals who voted for him in conclave.

In a new book-length interview being published in Italy Friday, the retired pontiff states that while he had been mentioned as a candidate for the papacy after John Paul’s 26-year reign, he dismissed those rumors and thought himself too old for the office.

Recalling his age and feeling at the time, Benedict states: "I was now 78-years-old, which was of course reassuring. If the bishops stop at 75, you cannot hoist a 78-year-old onto the chair of Peter."

Benedict’s revelation of his mindset at his election to the papacy is one of many striking moments in the book, to be published in the U.S. Nov. 3 by Bloomsbury under the title Last Testament: In His Own Words.

"Of course I'd been mentioned a lot beforehand," the retired pope continues. "But I really wasn’t able to take it seriously. I thought it couldn’t happen; that it was unreasonable."

Benedict says that as the cardinals gathered in conclave at the Vatican to elect John Paul’s successor many had "exhorted the one who would be elected, so to speak, saying he must -- even if he doesn’t feel up to taking the cross upon himself -- submit himself to the two-thirds majority, and see that decision as a sign."

"This is his inner duty," he states. "It is worked out with so much gravity and dignity that I believed, if the majority of the cardinals really elect me, the Lord is electing me, and then I must accept it."

The book is based on conversations Benedict had with German journalist Peter Seewald, with whom he also published a book-length interview during his papacy. In his introduction to the volume, Seewald says the interviews were conducted "shortly before and after" Benedict’s 2013 resignation and that the retired pope was given final approval over the text.

Some of the material from the book was released in Italy Thursday, with excerpts being printed in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Related: Pope Benedict speaks: 'I do not see myself as a failure' (Sept. 8, 2016)

Related: Benedict reveals dissatisfaction with Paul VI's 'Humanae Vitae' (Sept. 12, 2016)

In the full set of conversations, Benedict tells Seewald that while he considered not accepting his election that "I simply knew then, somehow, that I couldn’t just say no." He repeats earlier remarks that the votes made by cardinals for his election felt to him "like a guillotine."

No John Paul III

The retired pope also states that he never considered taking the name John Paul III.

"I felt that would be inappropriate, because a standard had been set there which I couldn't match," Benedict says. "I could not be a John Paul III. I was a different character, cut from a different cloth. I had a different sort of charisma, or rather a non-charisma."

Benedict says that he thought his pontificate would be a short one.

"I did think that I might not have that much strength," Benedict states. "I could not start any long-term things."

"One has to make do with what time one has," he continues. "I was conscious that my task was of another kind: that I must try above all else to show what faith means in the contemporary world, and further, to highlight the centrality of faith in God, and give people the courage to have faith, courage to live concretely in the world with faith."

Asked about the most difficult moments of the first days of his pontificate, Benedict takes a humorous note.

"I had great difficulty with the cufflinks," he says, mentioning that he rarely wore them before his election. "They even got me quite annoyed, so I thought that whoever invented them must be in the depths of purgatory."

Seewald then takes Benedict through some of the most contentious moments of his papacy, asking for his comment on some of the scandals that were brought to light from 2005-13.

Clergy Sex Abuse

In response to a question on his handling of clergy sexual abuse, the former pope refers to steps he took to root out abusive priests during his time as the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, led that congregation from 1981 until his papal election.

"I immediately took hold of matters when they came to me," Benedict states. "At first the Congregation for the Clergy had claimed jurisdiction. But I saw that the strict line on it which was necessary would not be taken, and I brought it under the CDF's remit."

"I was aware that it was a very difficult task, and that we would experience criticism," he continues. "But I also knew that we had people who were better able to master it. The fact that the CDF were dealing with it would also be a signal that this task has the highest priority for the Church."

Asked if John Paul II had handled the matter vigorously enough, Benedict replies: "It always depends on the information."

"When he was sufficiently informed and saw what was going on, he was wholly convinced that one must tackle it energetically," states Benedict. "Under the existing church law it was not possible to dole out the most severe punishments. I said then that we need new amendments. The Pope immediately gave me a free rein on this. We created new legal norms and structures, just so the issue could be dealt with."


Benedict also speaks about the so-called Vatileaks scandal, where his papal butler, Paolo Gabriele, was eventually found guilty of leaking confidential documents.

"The Paolo Gabriele affair was a disastrous business," says the retired pope. "But first, I was not to blame – he was checked by the authorities and put in post by them – and second, one has to reckon with such things in human beings. I am not aware of any failures on my part."

"It was simply unintelligible to me," he continues later. "Even when I see the person I can't understand how someone would want to do something like that. What can have been expected from it. I cannot penetrate this psychology."

Addressing his 2013 resignation, Benedict says he made his mind up to resign at some point around August 2012. He says his March 2012 visit to Mexico and Cuba "had really taken it out of me" but that he initially thought he would continue as pontiff into 2014.

After the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was moved up from 2014 to 2013, Benedict says he decided he would resign before that event.

Just before reading aloud the Latin declaration of his resignation to cardinals and bishops at the Vatican on Feb. 11, 2013, the retired pope says he asked himself: "What will mankind be saying as I stand there?"

"To the general public, of course, it was a new and tremendous step, which is how I saw it," he continues. "But I had wrestled with it inwardly the whole time, so my inward self was to some extent already weathered. In this sense it was not a day of particular suffering for me."

On Resignation: 'Even a father's role stops'

Benedict also answers critics who might say the effects of aging are not sufficient reason for a pope to resign.

"The Pope must do concrete things, must keep the whole situation in his sights, must know which priorities to set, and so on," he states. "This ranges from receiving heads of state, receiving bishops – with whom one must be able to enter into a deeply intimate conversation – to the decisions which come each day."

"Even if you say a few of these things can be struck off, there remain so many things which are essential, that, if the capability to do them is no longer there – for me anyway; someone else might see it otherwise – now’s the time to free up the chair," he continues.

Benedict also responds to those who say his action "secularized" the papal office.

"To that I must reply: even a father's role stops," says the retired pope. "Of course a father does not stop being father, but he is relieved of concrete responsibility. He remains a father in a deep, inward sense, in a particular relationship which has responsibility, but not with day-to-day tasks as such. It was also this way for bishops."

"I think it is also clear that the Pope is no superman and his mere existence is not sufficient to conduct his role, rather he likewise exercises a function," he continues. "If he steps down, he remains in an inner sense within the responsibility he took on, but not in the function. In this respect one comes to understand that the office of the Pope has lost none of its greatness, even if the humanity of the office is perhaps becoming more clearly evident."

No Break with Pope Francis

Benedict also makes clear that he sees no "break" between his pontificate and that of his successor, Pope Francis.

"If one isolates things, takes them out of context, one can construct opposites, but not if one looks at the whole," says the retired pope. "There may be a different emphasis, of course, but no opposition."

The retired pontiff also praises Francis' 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel").

"It is not a short text, but it is a beautiful one, and grippingly written," he says. "Certainly not all of it by himself, but much of it is very personal."

In talking about the duties of the papacy, Benedict also offers his impressions of several world leaders.

World Leaders

U.S. President Barack Obama, he says, is "a great politician, of course, who knows what it takes to be successful, and has certain ideas that we cannot share, but he was not only a tactician to me, but certainly a reflective man too."

"I felt that he sought the meeting between us, and that he listened," says Benedict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, he says, is "very interesting."

"I certainly believe that he is – a man of power of course – somehow affected by the necessity of faith," states Benedict. "He is a realist. He sees how Russia suffers from the destruction of morality."

"Even as a patriot, as someone who wants Russia to have great power again, he sees that the destruction of Christianity threatens to destroy Russia," the retired pope continues. "A human being needs God, he sees that quite evidently, and he is certainly affected by it inwardly as well."

Among other tidbits in the book, Benedict reveals several prayers he considers favorites and says frequently. Three, rather interestingly, were authored by Jesuits: St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Peter Canisius.

Benedict particularly praises Canisius' so-called "general prayer" which asks God to "look through the eyes of your gratuitous mercy at our sorrow, misery, and need" and to have mercy on all faithful Christians. 

The retired pontiff says the prayer is "unchangingly pertinent and beautiful."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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