St. Paul resident reflects on his time covering Pope Benedict XVI for Catholic News Service

Pope Benedict XVI Celebrates Midnight Mass
Pope Benedict XVI gives Christmas Night Mass at St. Peter's Basilica on Dec. 24 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Franco Origlia | Getty Images 2009

The world remembered the former pontiff, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Thursday as he was laid to rest below St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. He died Saturday at age 95.

One of those remembering him was a Minnesotan who had a front row seat to his papacy. John Thavis was the Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service from 1996 to 2012. He has since written two books on the church, including “The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church.”

Thavis joined All Things Considered Thursday to reflect on Benedict’s mixed legacy and share one of the few times the stubbornly straight-faced Pope let his guard down.

The conversation is transcribed below. It has been edited for length and clarity You can hear it using the audio player above.

What was Benedict's record on the clergy sexual abuse scandal in 2018?

Well, Benedict has a mixed record on the sex abuse question. And you know, as soon as you say that, some people will criticize it. They feel that his record is one of complete failure.

In fact, behind the scenes even before he became Pope, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he took several legal steps so that the cases of sexual abuse could be handled more efficiently by the Vatican. He basically engineered a much tougher approach, and the result was that hundreds of priests were defrocked.

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You might remember the case of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. He was one of the church’s most notorious pedophiles, it turned out. Pope Benedict removed him from ministry after many other Vatican officials had defended him. Benedict met with victims many times to apologize to them.

But here's the rub: I don't think there's one single time when Benedict moved against the bishops who have covered up abuse by priests. Obviously, the sexual abuse is horrendous and never should have happened. But it's the cover ups and it's the idea that bishops were simply moving priests around that really enraged Catholics and others. 

Pope Francis is considered to be pretty progressive and active on issues like Native boarding schools and climate change. Does it stand to reason then that Pope Benedict was a relic of a bygone era? How would you characterize him? 

Benedict actually, in a sense, opened the way to Pope Francis' more progressive positions on things like ecology or Indigenous rights. On both of those issues, Benedict was praised at certain points in his pontificate. I remember he met with Indigenous Canadians at one point and he apologized directly for the church's treatment of of Native peoples.

But there’s always another side of the coin with Pope Benedict. He then went to Brazil in 2007 and declared that Christianity was not an imposition of a foreign culture on Indigenous peoples. And he'd suggested at that time that Native cultures have always yearned for Christ, and that to return to pre-Columbian religions would be a step backward. Those remarks were, of course, criticized and after returning to Rome, Benedict tried to walk back to those remarks.

This, I think, was an unfortunate pattern of Benedict’s pontificate. A papal statement made on the world stage had to be edited later because of widespread criticism.

As for ecology, I once wrote that Pope Benedict was the “green pope” because he installed solar panels on top of the Vatican rooftops. He helped finance a reforestation project in Hungary. Benedict was aimed at making the Vatican the first carbon-neutral state in the world. And he did speak very forcefully about the need to address climate change. 

Then he started to connect what he called “human ecology” with nature ecology. And by that he made it clear that his vision of ecology included protection of the unborn, and even rejection of gender theories that challenge what he called the traditional order of creation. So I think at that point, a large part of his audience tuned out.

You were the Rome Bureau Chief for Catholic News Service during Benedict's papacy. What was he like? 

Benedict, after John Paul II, was a disappointment to many reporters. 

He became a teacher, and that meant talking about what we believe as Catholics, [such as] the importance of saints. He once gave a long talk about the significance of the sign of the cross, which was all very interesting and made for some very beautiful sermons. But for journalists, it was deadly. I mean, my colleagues in the Vatican Press Corps had no idea what to write about. They would say, “We can't write about his devotion to Mary 20 times in a row.”

I think Pope Benedict did not trust the media. I think Pope Benedict, to a large degree, did not trust popular culture at all. He had lived in a bubble most of his life. He went into the seminary at a young age and, essentially, his experience was in the church and not in the world. So I think he was a shy man. He was a very sensitive man, very sensitive to criticism. He did not show his emotions.

Were there ever moments when he let his guard down? 

Benedict went back to Germany in 2006. It was supposed to be this poignant homecoming event. He was visiting the places where he grew up in Bavaria. And I remember watching him as he approached his house where all the TV cameras were waiting. This was the house where he had grown up, and he was supposed to go inside and look like he was remembering things, I guess. Well, Benedict did not perform on cue like that. And in fact, he approached the house, he looked very bored, and he walked right past it to the great disappointment of photographers and TV people. He was simply not going to emote on cue. 

You know, somebody once asked me, “Have you ever seen Benedict express joy?” And I had to think really long and hard. And the best example I could come up with was [on that same trip], when the Pope was invited to dedicate a new organ at the Cathedral of Regensburg, Germany. 

I turned up there and I could see the Pope was suddenly very energized. He gave a talk and he said organ music could express all the experiences of human life and help people understand how magnificent God is. He even drew an analogy, as I recall, between the organ and the church.

Then he sat back and listened to Bach's “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor.” And I remember watching him. He appeared absolutely transported, absolutely thrilled. Music brought him joy.

It was a particular kind of music, you know — the kind that could be trusted, not pop music. Benedict was a classical pianist and he was a theologian, and I think both those roles reflect his trust in systems that don't disappoint, as long as they're guided wisely.