Veteran Catholic journalist and St. John’s alum reflects on Pope Benedict’s legacy

John Thavis is a journalist and, author who served as the Rome bureau chief of Catholic News Service from 1996 to 2012, a span of time that included the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Thavis’ books include “The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church” (2013). He is a 1973 graduate of St. John’s University in Collegeville. The following interview, conducted Dec. 31 by editor Joe Towalski, was edited for length and clarity.

Q. You covered Pope Benedict for almost his entire tenure. What interactions with him do you remember most?

Thavis: One of the key moments was right before he was elected pope, when he presided over Pope John Paul II’s funeral. He spoke very eloquently and with real love, and I think that was a defining moment for him. Some thought of [Cardinal Ratzinger] as a kind of grand inquisitor who would transition to being a pope as grand inquisitor. In fact, Benedict switched gears quite dramatically.

John Thavis
(CNS photo/Leo Sorel, Fordham University)

His first encyclical was titled “God is Love.” Basically, that was the thrust of his papacy: God is love. We shouldn’t be afraid of God. Modern society needs to reconnect with God, and here’s the way this can be done. It was kind of a gentle teaching approach, I think, to the Catholic faithful. He stopped his dissection of theology in favor of a much broader approach. In addition to his encyclicals — he wrote two more on hope and charity — he wrote his series of books on Jesus of Nazareth because he thought that’s what the Church had lost — this idea of a personal relationship with Jesus — and so he turned to that.

In his everyday appearances, Benedict dropped the kind of language that he used as a cardinal, which was rather dark in some ways about modern society and modern cultures. And, instead, he started to use more inviting language. He started to explain to Catholics themselves the basics of their own faith. I think he felt that people had lost touch with, for example, the saints. He spoke continually about the saints, their importance. He gave a whole series of talks about the history of the Church Fathers. He talked about the significance of the Sign of the Cross. These are very fundamental things that he felt Catholics and others had lost touch with.

Q. Are there other moments that stick in your mind?

Thavis: I remember his flight to the United States (in 2008). There weren’t many times when reporters saw a deeply personal side of Pope Benedict. But one of them was on this flight. I’m sure he knew the questions were coming: “What about the sex abuse cases?” “What about your record on this?” “What is the Church going to do?” And he gave a very moving answer in which he talked about the personal pain he had felt while reading over the files of accused priests. That these files were now, thanks to a decision he made, taken over by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I think that was a moment where people saw the personal side and a very vulnerable side of Pope Benedict.

Pope Benedict’s pontificate experienced ups and downs. At one point, he spoke about Islam, and the blowback to that was terrible. He had quoted someone who said not very nice things about Islam, and he later apologized and said he shouldn’t have quoted him in that way. On another occasion, he lifted the excommunication of some traditionalist bishops, one of whom had denied the existence of the Holocaust. The reaction from the Jewish community was very strong. On that occasion, I remember Pope Benedict wrote a personal letter in which he explained how much that hurt him. He did not betray his emotions very easily. But every now and then you saw that this was a deeply sensitive person and sensitive to criticism.

Pope Benedict XVI blesses the World Youth Day cross at Marienfeld, near Cologne, Germany, Aug. 20, during a vigil attended by more than a million pilgrims. (CNS photo from L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

I also remember when he presided over his first World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany (in 2005). It was a homecoming visit for the Pope, and he had hundreds of thousands of young people holding candles in the dark under the moon. John Paul II would use those occasions to banter, to engage the young people, to let them make a ruckus. Pope Benedict asked people to please be quiet. There were moments of silence. I think that’s a hallmark of his approach to spirituality in general — that we need silence sometimes. We need silence for prayer. We need silence for thought. This was clearly a break from his predecessor. He was showing he was going to do things differently.

Q. So much has already been written about Pope Benedict’s legacy. But do you look at his legacy any differently today than maybe you did in 2013 when he retired?

Thavis: Pope Benedict probably has many legacies. He was a great theologian. Then he moved from that to Vatican official, then to pope, and then this latest chapter as retired pope. When he announced his retirement, almost every journalist I spoke with said, “Oh, he’s not going to live long. He’s very ill.” That wasn’t true, of course. It wasn’t the reason he resigned. He resigned because he recognized that the papacy is not some kind of divine status. It is an office that sometimes should be set aside. The fact that he lived almost 10 years as a retired pope is a huge part of his legacy now.

He will be remembered not only as the pope who retired, but as the pope who lived as a retiree. The way he did that is going to make a difference in the Church’s future. He said immediately was that he would be absolutely obedient to his successor, and he made good on that promise. He went out of his way to express his loyalty, his obedience to Pope Francis and to say in no uncertain terms, “There is only one pope.”

Pope Francis greets retired Pope Benedict XVI at the retired pontiff’s Vatican residence Dec. 23, 2013. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The other promise he made was that he would remain hidden from the world. And he tried to do this, but without completely succeeding because, of course, he had visitors. He had people who would ask him to write little things and he would comply. And those little things turned into bigger things. He wrote, for example, a 6,000-word analysis of the sex abuse crisis that blamed it in large part on the sexual and cultural revolution of the ‘60s. It was published, and it was looked at critically by some. But the point was, he was publishing, and he was publishing not only on historical issues or on strictly theological issues, but he was also giving interviews. And he was talking about the current pope. He was talking about current issues.

In 2021, he wrote a letter to German Church leaders criticizing the way the institutional Church in Germany was working. He said there was a lack of faith there. Pretty tough words. At the time, the German Church was, and still is, very hotly debating their pastoral directions. Pope Benedict, although it was his intention to never be heard from again, was heard from on some key issues. I think that’s just the reality. You cannot really seclude yourself from the world in the modern world anymore. If you’re a retired pope, your views are going to be of interest to people, including your successor. Pope Francis asked him for advice on occasion.

Then there was the episode last summer in which a German Church report found fault with his handling of abuse cases when he was archbishop of Munich. Pope Benedict responded with a letter and acknowledged mistakes but denied any intentional wrongdoing. The point is that even a retired pope is going to be called to answer for his actions in the future if he’s still alive and coherent. There are going to be times when, you, as a retired pope, simply cannot opt out of the world and never be heard from.

Q. A funeral for a retired pope is unprecedented in modern times. As somebody who has followed the papacy and the Vatican for many decades, is there anything during the next several days and during Pope Benedict’s funeral service that we should be looking for?

Thavis: There are very strict protocols for when an acting pope dies because it involves the transfer of power and authority. In this case, that’s already been done. When Pope Benedict resigned, they sealed up his apartment and broke his fisherman’s ring, and that was it. They’ve done all those symbolic things.

I think it’ll be a very simple funeral. They’ll probably defer to whatever Pope Benedict wanted regarding the funeral. That, too, is significant. There are no rules for a retired pope because he does not occupy a Church office specifically. He’s a free person, in a way, to do whatever he may want to do — go around, give lectures, feed the sick in soup kitchens like Pope Francis has hinted that he wants to do when he retires, if he retires.

One of the interesting follow-up issues to this is that I think canon lawyers and other experts will be looking very closely at how Pope Benedict conducted himself in retirement. They will see that as a model. It’s a model that for the most part worked. He certainly did not set himself up as a parallel authority to the current pope. There was none of that. He did make those forays into the public eye, but they were brief, and they didn’t really cause that much controversy.

I think canon lawyers may want to codify something, but I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen. One of the things canon lawyers in Rome have been saying is that Pope Benedict, as a retiree, communicated largely through his personal secretary. People never really knew how much weight to give it. They wanted all communication to go through the Vatican press office. They thought that would be a good rule to put in place. Well, can you imagine a retired Pope Francis putting up with that? He doesn’t go through the Vatican press office even as pope. … I do think we have a very interesting role here — retired pope — and now there’s a precedent. It’s a very fascinating situation to me.

Visit John Thavis’ website at

Author: Joe Towalski

Joe Towalski is the editor for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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