VATICAN CITY — It was the quietest of announcements that had the effect of a thunderclap on the Catholic world: A year ago this past Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI said in a voice so soft that cardinals strained to hear (and in a Latin not all could easily follow) that he was becoming the first pontiff to resign in more than half a millennium. On the eve of the anniversary, Benedict’s longtime private secretary credited the stunning decision with opening the way to the “enormous impact” Pope Francis is having on the church and the world at large.
Monsignor Georg Gaenswein’s comments sent a message of continuity between the awkward, bookish Benedict and his charismatic, superstar successor — the first Jesuit pope and the first pontiff from Latin America. It also may suggest that Benedict approves of the dramatic changes that Francis is bringing about within the church — even if many seem to go against the grain of his more restrained papacy.
“We are all seeing the impact that Pope Francis is having on the world, not just the faithful in the church but in the world. It’s an enormous impact, and this impact was also facilitated by Pope Benedict in resigning,” Gaenswein told Vatican Television. “He opened a possibility that until then wasn’t there. And we can see that Pope Francis has taken this situation in hand, and we’re delighted.”
Gaenswein is in the historically unique situation of serving two popes: While he remains Benedict’s secretary, lives with him in his retirement home in the Vatican gardens and takes daily walks with him in the afternoon, Gaenswein is also the head of Pope Francis’s household, arranging his schedule and appearing regularly with him at his Wednesday general audiences and other public events.
Gaenswein was by Benedict’s side on that Monday morning, Feb. 11, 2013, when, during the course of a routine announcement of new saints on a Vatican holiday, Benedict announced that he no longer had the “strength of mind and body” to be pope and would retire at the end of the month.
Francis was elected about a month later and has dazzled the world with his simple style, his message of mercy over moralizing, and a tone of welcoming that has thrilled progressive Catholics and troubled conservatives. He has since been named “Person of the Year” by Time magazine and has injected new life into an institution that was crumbling after a decade of scandal over sexual abuse and, more recently, over the theft of Benedict’s private papers by his butler.
As the anniversary of that momentous resignation day approached, Vatican officials have sought to stress Benedict’s generosity, courage and service to the church in deciding to step down as they battle to preserve his legacy amid the increasing temptation to contrast his often problematic papacy and reserved personality with his crowd-pleasing successor.
It’s no easy feat when no one ever made a “Super Pope” wall painting of Benedict or created a life-size chocolate statue of him — as has been the case with Francis.
Recently, the Vatican spokesman felt the need to defend Benedict when Rolling Stone magazine put Francis on the cover and compared his “gentle revolution” to the “disastrous papacy” of his predecessor.
Benedict’s longtime deputy recently issued a mea culpa for not having been able to better protect his boss from the “ruthless criticism” lobbed his way over sexual abuse and the leaks of confidential papal documents. And over the weekend, Benedict’s personal theologian, Cardinal Georges Cottier, said the true Benedict really only came to be known once he resigned.
“In the eight years prior, Benedict was a pope who had to be discovered, sampling his beautiful homilies and studying the profoundness of his texts. But his shy and reserved character, in addition to a certain hostility by the media, didn’t completely show him off,” Cottier told Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference.
“Now, after his resignation, people are beginning to realize what a big heart he has: He’s a humble, good man, without any toughness.”
Benedict himself appeared to offer Francis a thumbs-up in a recent letter to the dissident Catholic theologian Hans Kueng. Kueng, who clashed with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper on Monday that he had received a note from Benedict on Jan. 24 in which the former pope wrote: “I’m grateful to be bound by a great identity of views and a heartfelt friendship with Pope Francis. Today, I see my last and final job to support his pontificate with prayer.”
In fact, Benedict has largely stuck to his retirement pledge to live his remaining years “hidden from the world” in a converted convent in the Vatican gardens, praying, reading, playing piano and receiving visitors. He has attended only one public event with Francis — to inaugurate a statue in the Vatican gardens in the summer — and he has put the lid on his once-prolific pace of book publication.
Francis seems perfectly at ease with the pope next door; they exchanged visits over the Christmas holidays, and they not only speak frequently by phone but also exchange written notes.
Gaenswein acknowledged that February 2013 was tough on him, as it would be on anyone saying goodbye.
On Feb. 28, Benedict’s final day as pope, Gaenswein openly wept as he and the pope bid farewell to staff in the Apostolic Palace and headed out to the helicopter waiting to take them away to the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo, where Benedict spent his first months in retirement.
“For me, the last day of the pontificate was a day of terrible pain,” he said.