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Tracey Rowland, Pope biographer, on Benedict’s resignation

On Feb. 28, Pope Benedict XVI retired from his position as the leader of the Catholic Church, becoming the first pontiff since 1294 to resign from the papacy. As the Catholic Church prepares for the conclave that will elect the next pope, the Tribune sat down with leading theologian Professor Tracey Rowland, Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia, and author of the 2008 biography of Benedict XVI, “ Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI,” to discuss Benedict’s legacy, the challenges facing the next pope, and candidates for the position, including Quebec’s own Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

MT: What was Pope Benedict’s contribution to the papacy?

TR: I think he’s [made] a number of contributions. The ones that stand out, I suppose, his work for Christian unity. He has a deep understanding of the Orthodox churches, and that’s because he has such a great knowledge of church history, and knowledge of what are called the Greek fathers…. He was all the time sending messages to the Orthodox leaders that he was trying to include … as part of the great patrimony of Christianity. And he did [an] enormous amount of diplomatic work with the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. He established the Anglican Ordinariate, and I think that in the future that will be seen as a watershed moment in the history of the return of Anglicans to full communion with the Catholic Church.… He’s also worked on bringing the Lefebvrists back, the people who went into schism in 1988 over interpretations of the Second Vatican Council…. I think in the future, one of his major legacies will be his writing, both as pope and as Cardinal Ratzinger. He’s published over 60 books, and I don’t know how many articles and how many homilies. I think people will be reading him for a very long time.

MT: It’s clear that one of the bigger legacies is his effort for Christian unity. How would you say he has handled some of the scandals that have come up during his papacy?

TR: I think he’s done the only thing he can do, and that is look humble, and say he feels so deeply sad about these things. The pope has a lot of authority, but the Church is a huge structure, and if people are making imprudent decisions at other levels, even if you have an enormous amount of authority, you can’t, on a day-to-day basis, be on [top of] everything that’s happening in every diocese in the world. That’s not humanly possible…. When terrible things happen, a reaction in the contemporary world is to think, well, what bureaucratic protocols should have been in place to stop this? And in some ways it’s valid to think about it like that. But there are much deeper issues. There’s no number of protocols or procedures that can stop evil. We’ve had evil in the world since the Fall [of Adam and Eve]. It’s like this problem is on a much deeper spiritual level. And I think he understands that. I think that with the resignation, he is saying, “Whoever has to deal with all of this needs to be a very strong person. And I don’t have the physical strength to deal with this and everything else the pope has to do. We need a younger man, a stronger man, but I’m not going to go into a room and watch television. I’m going to go and spend whatever days I have remaining in my life doing penance and praying.” And so it’s like he’s saying, “when things are this bad, we’re in an intense spiritual battle, and we know from the scripture that there’s some evil that’s so bad that the only thing that can get rid of it is prayer and fasting,” and that’s what he’s going to do.

… Sometimes lay people say, “Well, we don’t think we should be doing prayer and penance because we haven’t created these problems, we’ve been the victims, our families have been the victims, our children have been the victims. We shouldn’t be doing the penance, the bishops should be doing the prayer and penance.” And I think Pope Benedict is leading by example by saying, “Well, I am the chief bishop, and I’m going to do prayer and penance.” I think that’s the spiritual witness that he’s giving.

MT: What does the resignation mean to the Catholic Church?

TR: I think it could be something very providential. Imagine if the young pope finds himself in a position where he can go and talk to Pope Benedict like a son to a father. And to have the consolation that while he’s dealing with all the things he has to deal with, that there’s another man who has shouldered these responsibilities, who is living in the same precinct, praying, to whom he can go and share what is ever troubling him. I think that could be something really wonderful that, for 600 years, no pope has had.

… [Pope Benedict is] also admitting, “Well, my ability to deal with the problems of the church as an ecclesial administrator is severely limited by my age.” One bishop said to me that he has been told that Pope Benedict is only capable of doing four hours of work a day. His doctors have said, “If you do more than four hours of work a day, you’ll be dead within a couple of weeks.” That’s hearsay, but he’s an 85- year-old man, it’s probably true.

What are the main challenges facing the next pope?

He’s following two great popes, blessed John Paul II, who was just loved by so many people [due to] the incredible depth of his humanity. And [he] was followed by this brilliant theologian. It’s an extraordinary job description, but I think ideally we would like to have someone who has the theological gifts of Pope Benedict, the personal charisma of blessed John Paul II, and quite a strong skill for administration. Because we know that in the final years of the papacy of John Paul II, he was so unwell that the administration was starting to break down and become chaotic—and that doesn’t seem to have been fixed under the papacy of Benedict. So we’ve had pretty much a decade of poor ecclesial governance. The next pope will need to be able to get on top of the administration.

Would you comment on the candidates for the papacy?

Well, one of the most interesting things in terms of the frontrunner is that a lot of people think that the number one frontrunner is Cardinal Marc Ouellet. Cardinal Ouellet has had experience working in Latin America, he’s highly regarded by North Americans, he’s also had experience working in Rome in the Curia, [and] so he has some understanding of how the bureaucracy operates. He [knows] a number of languages. Some people think that after a Pole and a German, it’s about time that someone with a francophone background was pope, but mostly I think it’s because he’s seen to be someone who has had a very broad range of experiences in a number of different areas of the world. He’s also a very strong theologian.

You wrote two books on Benedict. What did you learn through the process of writing about him?

One of the things people say about Ratzinger is that he is so easy to understand, that when he writes about theological topics, one doesn’t need to have a degree in theology in order to follow what he’s saying. I think that has made him immensely popular with a lot of people. One also discovers that he has an incredible knowledge of Church history and the writings of the early Church fathers.

… Another thing I like about him, which is of no great theological significance, is he likes cats. I think that’s lovely. One of the stories about him is that when he was a cardinal, at lunch time he would often go to one of the parks in Rome. He liked to go for a stroll in the park near his office, and he always would take scraps to give the stray cats. I think that shows something of the emotional side of him. Apparently he does, or did [own a cat]. The cat was called Chico … a really good question is, will he get a cat now that he’s no longer pope? I think he should.

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