ROME — In a rare interview, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI recalled his close friendship with Blessed John Paul II, saying that his predecessor’s sanctity and deep spirituality were apparent during his life.
“In the years in which I collaborated with him, it was ever clearer to me that John Paul II was a saint,” said Benedict XVI during an interview with Polish journalist Wlodzimierz Redzioch, which was published April 20 in the Spanish newspaper La Razon.
“Naturally, his intense relationship with God, being immersed in communion with the Lord, needs to be taken into account, above all,” the pope emeritus said of his predecessor.
Benedict XVI, who served under Pope John Paul II as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the Polish pope courageously “embraced his task in a truly difficult time.”
“John Paul II did not ask for applause, nor did he look around worried about how his decisions were going to be received. He acted based on his faith and his convictions, and he was also willing to take hits,” Benedict recounted. “The courage for truth is, in my view, a primary measure of holiness. Only by looking first at his relationship with God is it possible to also understand his unfailing pastoral determination.”
Confronting Liberation Theology
In this sense, he recalled the decision of the future saint to confront head on the spread of liberation theology in Latin America.
“Both in Europe and in North America, the common view was that it was about supporting the poor and that, therefore, it was a cause that ought to be approved outright. But that was an error. Poverty and the poor were undoubtedly addressed by liberation theology, but from a very specific perspective,” Benedict XVI explained.
Liberation theology used the Christian faith and transformed it “into a kind of political force. The religious traditions of the faith were placed at the service of political action. In this way, the faith was profoundly alienated from itself, and true love for the poor was thus weakened as well. It was necessary to oppose such a falsification of the Christian faith, precisely out of love for the poor and service to them,” he continued.
The situation in John Paul II’s native Poland — ruled at that time by communism — “had showed him that the Church should truly act for freedom and liberation, not in a political way, but by awakening in men, through the faith, the forces of authentic liberation,” Benedict XVI said.
During the interview, the pope emeritus underscored that his collaboration with John Paul II “was always marked by friendship and affection,” on both an official and personal level. “The pope was very versed in contemporary German literature, and it was very beautiful (for both of us) to seek out the right decision together on these things,” he said.
Benedict XVI recalled that, each Tuesday, the two would discuss the catechesis for the Wednesday audience. “Through the catechesis, the pope decided to offer, over time, a catechism. He chose the themes and had us prepare brief preliminary considerations to be developed later (…). Here also, the theological competence of the pope became apparent. But at the same time, I admired his willingness to learn.”
The pope emeritus also noted “three encyclicals of particular importance” issued by John Paul II. The first is Redemptor Hominis, in which he offered his personal synthesis of the Christian faith. The second is Redemptoris Missio, in which he examined “the relationship between interreligious dialogue and the missionary task.” The third is Veritatis Splendor, in which he addressed moral problems in a way that continues to be relevant today.
“The encyclical Fides et Ratio was also very significant, in which the pope strived to offer a new vision of the relationship between the Christian faith and philosophical reason. And lastly, it is absolutely necessary to mention Evangelium Vitae, which developed one of the most fundamental themes of the entire pontificate of John Paul II: the intangible dignity of human life, from the moment of conception,” Benedict XVI added.
The pope emeritus also said the spirituality of his predecessor was characterized “by the intensity of his prayer, which was profoundly rooted in the celebration of the holy Eucharist.”
“All of us were aware of his great love for the Mother of God. To give everything to Mary meant being, with her, totally for the Lord. Just as Mary did not live for herself but for him, so also he learned from her — and from being with her, a complete and rapid devotion to Christ.”
Said Benedict XVI, “My memory of John Paul II is filled with gratitude. I couldn’t and shouldn’t try to imitate him, but I have tried to carry forward his legacy and his work the best that I could.”