An Insider’s View of Benedict’s Resignation

I worked at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State from 2007-2017. I’ll never forget the surprise on February 11, 2013, when Benedict announced his intention to retire.

Even after his death, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI raises a lot of questions. Was his resignation legitimate? Was he forced to resign? Was he working covertly to undermine his successor’s pontificate? As someone who worked for both men, I can assure you it’s all nonsense.  

Yes, we are living in unprecedented times. No one could foresee a retired pope living within the walls of the Vatican. But it is not as if Pope Benedict XVI had not carefully prepared for this situation, seeking counsel beforehand and establishing a cordial friendship with his successor afterward. It is not as if conversations regarding the eventual funeral rites and burial of the retired pope had never taken place, even if the rest of the world (and most of the Holy See) still doesn’t know what they are.

I worked at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State from 2007-2017. I’ll never forget the surprise on February 11, 2013, when Benedict announced his intention to retire. I was one of his Latinists, and even we had not seen beforehand the Latin declaration he read to the cardinals gathered in consistory. (Nevertheless, it was our duty to correct three minor mistakes, none of which would have voided his legitimate resignation.)

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On February 28, 2013, I joined my colleagues in the San Damaso courtyard to bid farewell to our beloved “boss.” Looking back, I can hardly believe we were not dreading an uncertain future. We rather sensed an overwhelming peace, confident that the Holy Spirit would guide us (i.e., the Secretariat of State), the College of Cardinals, and the entire Church through another sede vacante to the next successor of Peter.

As Benedict boarded the helicopter for Castel Gandolfo, I ascended Bernini’s long staircase and returned to my desk in the Apostolic Palace. There was little to do but pray. We begged the Lord to guide us safely through unchartered waters. We helped the cardinals prepare for the upcoming conclave. There were indeed moments of tension, doubt, and confusion; but why wouldn’t there be? There were even moments of rivalry and not-so-benign attempts to fill a power vacuum; but should that surprise us? 

In short, if we truly believe that it is the Lord’s Church and not ours, and if we truly believe that there is no discipleship without the Cross, we should expect trials, tribulations, and human weakness to confront and challenge us each step of the way on the journey to the Kingdom. 

The transition was, in fact, surprisingly smooth. One of the first items of business was to present Pope Francis with a draft of an encyclical letter that Pope Benedict had been working on for some time. Of course, it was entirely up to Francis to decide what to do with it. It bears the title Lumen Fidei, and it stands as a testimony not only to a fruitful collaboration between a pope and his predecessor, but, more importantly, to the detachment of the pope’s predecessor from his work as pontiff. Although the bulk of the encyclical was written by one of them, it was signed by the other. 

I remember how irked I was when several of my theologian friends asserted that Lumen Fidei was “really Benedict XVI’s encyclical.” Well, it wasn’t. If you have doubts, ask Benedict himself. The author is Francis. It was an act of humility for the latter to sign his new name to something he had not written and the former to entrust what he had written to someone who had every right to ignore it. (I wish I had had the same humility to accept the laborious reediting and re-revising of the Latin manuscript without grumbling!)

I know many think the two popes were at odds. I know many who call themselves “Ratzingerians” or “Bergoglians,” and it pains me. It’s fine to prefer one over the other. It’s fine to disagree with certain actions and decisions of either. But either of them would tell you (in fact, both of them have told you) that pinning one against the other or placing the legitimacy of either in doubt does nothing but exacerbate the divisiveness that St. Paul repeatedly warns against (1 Corinthians 1:10-13 and 11:19; Romans 16:17-18; Ephesians 4:3, and the list goes on). 

Although it was gripping entertainment, I blame much of the misconception over who Benedict was and who Francis really is on Fernando Meirelles and Anthony McCarten’s The Two Popes (distributed by Netflix). With all due respect for both Benedict and Francis (for I truly love them both), I remember the former having an infectious laugh and the latter a cold, penetrating stare. Mind you, I wish to offend neither! I only wish to point out that the personalities portrayed in the film are in many ways the exact opposite.

Truth be told, I wish people would spend less time fretting and bickering over all things papal. I am not suggesting in any way that the papacy is unimportant. I only mean to suggest that being a good Catholic just might entail paying less attention to Vatican politics and more attention to living a life of faith, hope, and charity in whatever community the Lord has placed you. The saints remain a shining example of this.

Neither am I suggesting that everything is fine with the Roman Curia. I’ve been there, and I assure you it isn’t. But having been there has only convinced me that, for most of us, the deep problems are addressed best through prayer, sacrifice, and perhaps a word of charitable correction when necessary. 

As we pray for our beloved Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and bid him farewell, we should use this moment to come together, not divide. We should thank the Lord for the magnificent gift of the Petrine mission and take heart in the Lord’s promise that He will be with us always, “even until the end of time” (Matthew 28:20).

[Photo: Pope Benedict XVI announcing his resignation (Credit: L’Osservatore Romano)]

  • Daniel B. Gallagher

    Daniel B. Gallagher is the Ralph and Jeanne Kanders Senior Lecturer in Latin at Cornell University. He previously served as Latin Secretary to Popes Benedict XVI and Francis at the Vatican.

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