Pope Benedict’s New Autobiography: I Was ‘Unsure’ About Francis

In his ‘final’ interviews, the dying retired pontiff managed to dish about his first love, his initial qualms about his successor, and the juiciest memoir no one will get to read.

Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

ROME — Pope Benedict XVI has given his final word. His autobiography, Benedict XVI: Final Conversations, published Sept. 9 in Italian and German, is the fruit of a series of long interviews by German journalist and papal confidante Peter Seewald. The English version will be released in late November under the title Last Testaments.

The cover shows the back of Benedict’s skullcapped head in a fog of incense over a red box, about the same color as his famous Prada shoes, with the words “spiritual testament” and a quote by Pope Francis about how his predecessor “embodies holiness, is a man of a man of God.”

In essence, it is a living obituary for a man who Seewald says is in the waning moments of his long life of 89 years. He is now blind in his left eye and cannot walk unassisted. When Seewald asked if he hoped to see his 90th birthday, Benedict responded, “hopefully not.”

Seewald uses Benedict’s own words intertwined with anecdotes of the long hours they spent together to paint a revealing portrait of a man who can be easily described as misunderstood. Seewald says that on several occasions he thought Benedict was so weak that he wouldn’t live to see their next meeting. “You realize he has lived his life,” Seewald told De Zeit when the book came out. “I don’t want to say he is tired of life, but that he has simply given all he’s got to give.”

Benedict was the first pope to resign from office in modern history, setting a precedent that many feel Pope Francis may follow when and if he tires of his fast-paced pontificate.

He describes himself as a “news junkie” and how he was “glued to the television to see who won” as his successor when the black smoke turned to white during the conclave. In his excitement, he ignored a call from Jose Mario Bergoglio, who he knew as a prominent member of the Argentine church. He was shocked when they called Bergolgio’s name to become the next pope.

“No one expected him,” Benedict says. “When I first heard his name, I was unsure. But when I saw how he spoke with God and with people, I truly was content. And happy.”

“What did touch me, though, was that even before going out onto the loggia, he tried to phone me.”

Benedict is also very honest about his shortcomings and frustrations as pontiff. He talks candidly about his battle against a “powerful gay lobby” of a handful of people who tried to influence decisions in the church. “We dissolved it,” he says matter-of-factly, though Francis has admitted such a group still exists within the hierarchy of the Holy See.

Benedict also admits where he thinks he could have done better. “My weak point perhaps is a lack of resolve in governing and making decisions,” he says about the indecision on many issues that has come to define his papacy. “Here, in reality, I am more a professor, one who reflects and meditates on spiritual questions. Practical governance was not my forte, and this certainly was a weakness.”

“But I don’t see myself as a failure,” he says. “For eight years, I did my service.”

He has also grown to appreciate Pope Francis, whose papacy has already overshadowed Benedict’s in the three years since he was elected. “He is a man of practical reform and he also has the soul to intervene and take measures of an organization nature,” Benedict says of the new pope.

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In the years after Benedict resigned, conspiracy theorists have suggested the German pontiff had been blackmailed or somehow pressured to leave his office. His retirement came after his butler was convicted of passing on his private documents to a journalist and after he was presented with a mysterious red binder that reportedly outlined the many problems facing the church. But Benedict says he wasn’t pushed out.

“It was not a retirement made under the pressure of events or a flight made due to the incapacity to face them,” he says. “No one tried to blackmail me. I would not have allowed it. If they had tried, I would not have gone because it is not right to leave when under pressure. And it is not true that I was disappointed, or anything like that.”

In interviews to promote the book, Seewald has also been giving out tidbits that didn’t make the tome’s final cut, including how Joseph Ratzinger, as he was known before he became pope, fell in love with a woman just as he was about to take his priestly vows. “There was an infatuation during his course of studies that was very serious,” Seewald told Die Zeit. “One of his fellow students told me he had quite an effect on women—and the other way around. The decision for celibacy wasn’t easy for him.”

One of the greatest disappointments the book reveals is that Benedict’s juicer memoir will be kept private. He kept extensive diaries throughout the time he was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and throughout his papacy, including the butler scandal and his decision to retire. Seewald says those notes will be destroyed when he dies.

Now that Benedict’s self-reflection has been published, Seewald says the former pope is ready to die, spending his days not dreading his death, but instead “preparing to pass the ultimate examination before God.”