ROME — Responding to interpretations of a recent reference by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI to the Church being near “capsizing,” the retired pontiff’s closest aid on Tuesday said it’s a “fantasy” to set him up against Pope Francis.
“They’re trying to use the pope emeritus in an anti-Francis tone,” said German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, speaking to the Italian daily Il Giornale.
Reports of Benedict criticizing his successor came after Gänswein, who also serves Francis as the Prefect of the Papal Household, read a message from the emeritus pope at the July 15 funeral of Benedict’s long-time friend, German Cardinal Joachim Meisner.
Meisner, who died on July 5, was the retired archbishop of Cologne, and had long been considered among Germany’s leading conservative Catholic voices. He’s one of the four cardinals who presented Francis with five dubia, or questions, regarding his 2016 document on the family Amoris Laetitia.
In his tribute, Benedict had nothing but praise for Meisner, but one sentence grabbed attention: According to the text, what moved Benedict the most from the final period of his friend’s life was that he had learned “to let go” and live with the “deep certainty that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when sometimes the boat is filled almost to capsizing.”
Many commentators took this to be a reference to the leadership of Francis, even though it’s an image the German pontiff used on several previous occasions, usually referring to perennial challenges to the Church rather than current events.
“Stupid people,” Gänswein said. “The emeritus pope was deliberately exploited, he wasn’t alluding to anything specific with that phrase, but talking about the situation of the Church of today and that of the past as a boat that doesn’t sail in calm waters. Francis also says this.”
Benedict used the image in his 2005 Good Friday Way of the Cross meditations, which he wrote when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side.
“In your field, we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again, after all our lofty words and grand gestures,” Ratzinger wrote in the prayer of the ninth station.
At the time, several commentators took that language to be a reference to the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.
Francis has praised the text several times. For instance, during his air-born press conference on the way back from his Mexico tour last year, he said: “if you remember, 10 days before the death of St. John Paul II, in that Via Crucis of Holy Friday, he said to the whole Church that it needed to clean up the dirt of the Church.”
That remark came in the context of Francis praising his predecessor for his fight against clerical sexual abuse, which earned him a rare applause from most of the journalists travelling with him on the plane.
“He’s a man who as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had everything in his hands. He conducted all the investigations, and went on, went on, went on, until he couldn’t go any further in the execution,” Francis said.
Gänswein said on Tuesday that Benedict XVI had personally written the message he sent to Meisner’s funeral, from the first word to the last, “without anyone helping him.”
“They want to exploit him,” Gänswein said. “But all this will be useless.”