Recalling Benedict’s grace but also the storms of his papacy

ROME – On my way back to Rome from Beirut in September 2012, I was escorted to the first class section of the papal plane and seated next to Pope Benedict XVI.

At the time, the 85-year-old Pope looked tired. He just finished a two-day visit to Lebanon, where the civil war is raging in neighboring Syria.

This was my 92nd such trip: The first with Pope John Paul II, master of the papal globetrotting, and then with Benedict for the past eight years.

Since I was planning to retire, Benedict’s trip to Beirut would be my last, so Vatican officials thought I should share this moment with him.

What I didn’t know at the time was that it would also be his last trip. A few months later, he would become the first pope to resign in 600 years.

Benedict was obviously tired during this flight, but was as polite as ever.

“Congratulations on your retirement,” he says in his soft, German-accented Italian, often making Italians laugh.

He looked surprised when I told him that I had been touring the Vatican for over 30 years. He sounded very bitter when he told me that I had retired.

I always wondered if our encounter had made him think about his own plans that he had yet to reveal to the world. His latest announced retirement date is February 28th, the day I chose to retire.

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On the plane, Benedikt seemed pleased with our conversation and in no rush to finish – his assistants signaled that it was time for me to return to my seat.

“Graceful” is a word that will always be associated with Benedict, who was always ready to shake hands and say something appropriate for the occasion.

The Netflix drama Two Popes portrays Benedict, played by Anthony Hopkins, as unconvinced that the Roman Catholic Church’s survival can only be guaranteed by a return to its fundamental principles.

However, Benedict was a revolutionary in his own right.

He is a person who does not back down and stands firm despite any external pressure. But he seemed almost oblivious to the storm he was creating.

When the inevitable question arises about his past in Nazi Germany, it’s worth pointing out that he covered this territory in several interviews before he became pope: compulsory membership in the Hitler Youth as a teenager; enlisted at the end of the war; he was abandoned and surrendered to the Americans.

So he avoided the arguments of others who were unfair about his story. It certainly smoothed the way for his Pope’s visits to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, Israel and synagogues in Rome and New York.

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During a stop at New York’s Park East Synagogue, it was fascinating to hear Rabbi Arthur Schneirer, a Viennese rabbi, speak in German. They sounded like two old friends.

His speech, aimed at promoting interfaith tolerance in one of the major crises of his papacy, sparked outrage and even some violence in the Islamic community.

In a 2006 speech at Germany’s Regensburg University, where he once served as a theology professor, Benedict cited the 14th-century Byzantine emperor’s Islam as “evil and inhumane, including his (Prophet Muhammad’s) command to spread the faith by the sword.”

The speech drew criticism from the Muslim world, but Benedict seemed surprised that what he saw as scholarly speech could cause such outrage.

He said he was deeply sorry for the offense some people had caused, but said he needed to make sure that religion can never be a motive for violence.

Years later, his former spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that Benedict knew exactly what he was going to say in his speech.

When Benedict made his first trip to Africa, a French reporter asked at a press conference on a flight to Cameroon in 2009 whether condoms could play a role in the fight against HIV.

“On the contrary, it increases the problem (condom use),” he said.

Journalists and others on the plane were puzzled by the response, which contradicted the views of health workers and many of its clergy fighting the disease on the continent.

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A year later, he backtracked somewhat, suggesting that condom use could be the first step toward more ethical HIV prevention practices.

It was such clarification that marked the confusion and infighting within the Vatican that marked Benedict’s papacy.

In the years since his abdication, Benedict has become increasingly fragile, secluded from the public eye in a chapel within the walls of the Vatican. He devoted himself mainly to prayer.

But his contribution to the Church, including paving the way for Pope Francis, was not forgotten by his Argentine successor. Francis thanked the German for the 70th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood in 2021, when Benedict will be 94 years old.

“Dear father, brother, Benedict, our love, gratitude and intimacy,” Francis said.


Victor L. Simpson covered the Vatican for the Associated Press from 1972 as a correspondent in Rome until his retirement as Italy bureau chief in 2013. During that time, he covered the last months, or 33 days, of Pope Paul VI. The pontificates of Pope John Paul I, Saint John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, 92 of them foreign visits.


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