Why did you not name yourself John Paul III?
I felt that would be inappropriate, because a standard had been set there which I couldn’t match. I could not be a John Paul III. I was a different character, cut from a different cloth; I had a different sort of charisma, or rather a non-charisma.
Suddenly: Christ’s vicar on earth. What inner change was going on there?
Yes, there was the thought: no, I need still more help from him. One knows: I really am not that. But if he puts the yoke on my shoulders, he must also help me bear it.
You spoke of the cardinals’ ballot as the falling of a “guillotine”. Did you regret that later?
No, the feeling was just like that, a guillotine.
For over two decades you were the closest collaborator of a pope, and for half your life you have concerned yourself theologically with the Petrine Primacy. Was there anything in particular that you were resolved not to do [after your election to the papacy]?
There was primarily the positive resolution that I wanted to put God and faith in the centre. It was also important to me to put Holy Scripture in the foreground. I was a man who came from a theological background, and I knew that my strength, if I have one, is to proclaim the faith positively. So above all I wanted to teach things from the fullness of Holy Scripture and Tradition.
To ask again: it is not only the things one does which are important, sometimes the things one does not do are yet more significant.
What should I say? I knew this would be no long pontificate. That I couldn’t see any long-term projects through, and there’d be no kind of spectacular initiatives. Especially nothing like calling a new Council; but I could strengthen the synodal element more, and I wanted to do that.
Is it not also a problem if the follower of Peter the fisherman is a professor? In Jesus’s selection of the twelve not a single scribe was called.
That’s right, but there have been popes who were scholars, from Leo the Great and Gregory the Great in the beginning – two very great lights – then Innocent III, and so on. So it is not unusual either. Of course a pope does not have to be a theological scholar, absolutely not. But he must have some cultivation of the intellect. He must know what the currents of the day are, the issues, the tasks, and in this sense, although being a professor is certainly not an ideal occupation for the episcopal or papal chair, it is not an impossibility either.
OK, one only realises afterwards that a professor is accused of approaching the contexts of life too theoretically, which is a danger when it comes to action. But he is gradually schooled in dealing with practical matters by the people around him, and this enables him to become something different; less theoretical and more capable of grasping practical tasks.
The former nuncio, Karl Josef Rauber, whom you already knew from the Council, said about you: “Joseph Ratzinger is a scholar of absolute integrity, but he is only interested in researching and writing.”
[Laughs] No, of course that’s not right. That wouldn’t work. You just have to do lots of practical things, and they bring joy. Visiting parishes, speaking to people, giving catechesis, leading all kinds of meetings. The parish visits are an especially lovely component; they make you happy. I was never a professor only. A priest cannot be just a professor by any means. If he were, he would be neglecting his calling. The priestly commission always involves some pastoral care, some liturgy too, as well as conversations. Maybe I have thought too much and written too much, that might well be. But it would not be the truth to say that that’s all I’ve done.
As Pope, were you a reformer, a preserver, or as your critics say, a failure?
I cannot see myself as a failure. I did my eight years in service. There were many difficulties in my time, if one thinks of the paedophile scandal, the stupid Williamson case, or even just VatiLeaks. But on the whole it was indeed also a time in which many people newly found the faith and a great positive movement was there.
Were you happy then, being Pope?
[Laughs] Well, I would say so; I knew that I am carried, so I am grateful for many beautiful experiences. But it was always a burden too, of course.
Your bishop motto comes to mind: “Co-worker of the truth”. How did you actually come to that?
Like this: I had for a long time somewhat excluded truth, because it seemed to be too great. The claim: “We have the truth!” is something which no one had the courage to say, so even in theology we had largely eliminated the concept of truth. In these years of struggle, the 1970s, it became clear to me: if we omit the truth, what do we do anything for? So truth must be involved.
Indeed, we cannot say “I have the truth”, but the truth has us, it touches us. And we try to let ourselves be guided by this touch. Then this phrase from John 3 crossed my mind, that we are “co-workers of the truth”. One can work with the truth, because the truth is person. One can let truth in, try to provide the truth with worth. That seemed to me finally to be the very definition of the profession of a theologian; that he, when he has been touched by this truth, when truth has caught sight of him, is now ready to let it take him into service, to work on it and for it.
This article first appeared in the November 11 2016 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here