VATICAN CITY (RNS) — In a wide-ranging interview with an Italian news agency published Friday (Oct. 30), Pope Francis addressed his relationship with his predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, saying the retired pope is “like a father and a brother to me.”
Francis, who sat for the interview with AdnKronos on Tuesday (Oct. 27), said, “Our relationship is really good, very good, and we agree on what needs to be done.”
He said that he often visits Benedict at his Vatican quarters in the Monastery of Mater Ecclesiae.
Ever since Benedict XVI shocked the Catholic Church and the world when he stepped down after fewer than eight years as pope, the notion of two popes living inside the Vatican’s walls has fueled speculation and division, as Benedict, often portrayed as a conservative, became a reference point for Catholics who object to Pope Francis’ more progressive worldview and approach.
The unique situation has also drawn the attention of filmmakers, authors and journalists seeking to explore the relationship between the two white-clad prelates as a symbol of broader tensions among Catholics.
But Francis once again attempted to set the record straight. Benedict, Francis said, is “sanctity personified,” and dismissed reports of petty rivalries. “Anyone can say and think what they want,” he added.
But Francis said that in their first visit after his election, his predecessor handed him a “large box.”
“Everything is in here,” Benedict said, according to Francis, “the documents containing the most difficult issues, I have come this far, I acted in this situation, I drove away these people and now… it’s your turn.”
The interview comes as Francis has begun to press harder to resolve the situations Benedict referred to. On Sept. 27, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, once among the most powerful prelates inside the Vatican, who was accused of embezzlement and nepotism in a widening scandal in which powerful financial interests have been connected to Vatican officials.
“The Church stays strong,” Francis said in the interview, “but the topic of corruption is a deep issue, going back centuries.”
- Pope Francis, white figure standing alone at center, delivers an Urbi et Orbi blessing from the empty St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, on March 27, 2020. Francis has likened the coronavirus pandemic to a storm laying bare illusions that people can be self-sufficient and instead finds “all of us fragile and disoriented” and needing each other’s help and comfort. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
His interview also comes as Francis is weathering criticism from conservatives for spontaneous remarks on civil unions for LGBTQ couples he made in a new documentary film, “Francesco,” not long after Fratelli tutti, his latest encyclical, raised eyebrows for its strong advocacy for the rights of immigrants and refugees and his patronage of the environment.
While admitting that “no one likes” criticism, especially when given with “ill faith and malice,” Francis said he believes “criticism to be constructive” and a helpful tool for discernment, which he described as the “guide in my journey on everything, on everyone.”
While he said that he thinks about his legacy, “it’s also true that if I must find inspiration to do better in criticism, I surely can’t be dragged down by every non-positive thing they write about the pope,” he said.
The pope also addressed the “days of great uncertainty” posed by the coronavirus. “I pray a lot, I am very, very, close to those who suffer. I accompany with prayer those who help people who suffer for their health.”
Francis added that he is concerned about COVID-19’s possible long-term impact on the Church, saying that he’d heard from a bishop that Catholics are “losing the habit” of going to Mass due to lockdowns and may not return to church when the pandemic ends.
If the faithful came to Mass out of habit alone, he responded, perhaps it would be better if they don’t come. But he predicted a better outcome.
“Perhaps after this difficult trial,” he said, “with these new challenges, with pain entering people’s homes, the faithful will be more true, more authentic. Believe me, it will be so.”