ROME – In a rare new interview with a German newspaper, retired pope Benedict XVI praised his successor’s devotion to St. Joseph and thanked Pope Francis for launching a special year dedicated to his namesake.

Speaking with the German newspaper Die Tagespost, Benedict XVI said, “I am naturally particularly pleased that Pope Francis is so aware of the importance of Saint Joseph.”

“Therefore, I read with particular gratitude and sincere approval the apostolic exhortation Patris Corde,” meaning “Father of the Heart,” which was the title of Pope Francis’s apostolic letter for the 150th anniversary of the declaration of St. Joseph as patron of the universal Church.

Publication of the letter coincided with the Dec. 8 opening of the “Year of St. Joseph,” on the liturgical feast of the Immaculate Conception. Pope Francis has offered several indulgences for invoking St. Joseph’s intercession throughout the year, which will close Dec. 8, 2021.

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In his interview Benedict, born as Joseph Ratzinger, recalled celebrating the March 19 feast of his saintly namesake, saying on that day “there was always a primrose as a sign of spring, which St. Joseph carries with him,” often displayed with St. Joseph in artistic depictions, “and our mother always prepared a cake with icing.”

While there is no direct account of anything Joseph actually said in the New Testament, his actions speak volumes, Benedict said. The pope emeritus recalled how, after making private plans for a quiet divorce when he found out Mary was pregnant, Joseph changed his mind after receiving a message from an angel in a dream.

“There is an equivalence between the mission of the angel who appears in the dream and the action of Saint Joseph, which clearly characterizes him as a person,” Benedict said.

“In the history of the order that was given to him in his dream to take Mary as his spouse, his answer is simply this: He got up and did as he was commanded. The correspondence between mission and action seems even stronger than in the story of the flight to Egypt,” when Joseph took Mary and Jesus and fled to Egypt to avoid Herod after an angel appeared to warn him in another dream.

For Benedict XVI, “St. Joseph’s silence is also his word. He expresses the ‘yes’ to what he has assumed with the bond with Mary, [and] therefore also with Jesus.”

Saint Joseph has been a figure close to popes throughout history. Benedict XVI himself is the fourth pope in recent memory to hold the baptismal name of Jesus’s adoptive father.

Others include: Saint Pope Pius X, whose birth name was Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto; Saint Pope John XXIII, whose name was Giuseppe Roncalli; and Saint Pope John Paul II, who was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla.

Although he does not share St. Joseph’s name, Pope Francis formally began his papal ministry in 2013 on the saint’s March 19 feast, giving him and his ministry a close connection to St. Joseph.

At the beginning of his papacy, Francis formalized a directive Benedict XVI had issued before his resignation, but which had not yet gone into effect by the time the time he stepped down, which was to include St. Joseph permanently in the list of saints invoked during the Eucharistic prayers used in Latin rite Masses.

On his papal coat of arms, Pope Francis has the primrose flower with which St. Joseph is often depicted.

While formally inaugurating his pontificate in 2013, Francis called St. Joseph “a strong and courageous man, a working man,” who at the same time is an example of “tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak, but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love.”

Pope Francis has often made reference to a statue he has of St. Joseph sleeping – or, as he would say, dreaming – saying that he often writes down difficult prayer requests and places them under the statue for St. Joseph’s intercession.

In his letter Patris Corde for the start of the Year of St. Joseph, Francis wrote that Joseph is someone he has thought of constantly during the coronavirus pandemic, which he said is a crisis that has shown how “our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people, people often overlooked. People who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines, or on the latest television show, yet in these very days are surely shaping the decisive events of our history.”

With this in mind, the pandemic is a chance to rediscover St. Joseph, “the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence,” as an intercessor and source of support and guidance, he said.

Saint Joseph, he said, “reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen