HE once admitted silently praying to God to spare him from serving as Pope, and yesterday former Pope Benedict revealed that God belatedly went some way to answering his prayer by “telling” him to quit earlier this year.
The 86-year-old, known as “God’s rottweiler” for his defence of Catholic doctrine, is reported to have said the message from God came during what he described as a “mystical” event.
His explanation, given to a visitor to the isolated convent in the Vatican gardens in Rome where he is living out his retirement, follows continued speculation that he stepped down as a result of poor health and the ongoing controversies which have blighted the Church.
Catholic news agency, Zenith, yesterday quoted Benedict as saying to a visitor: “God told me to do it.” Benedict, whose title is now Pope Emeritus, said that the more he observed the way his successor, Pope Francis, carried out his papal duties, the more he realised the choice was “wanted by God”, the agency said.
He also told his visitor, who asked to remain anonymous, that God did not speak to him in a vision but during what the former Pope referred to as “a mystical experience”.
Benedict sent shockwaves around the world in February when he became the first pontiff in nearly six centuries to resign. His sudden departure fuelled rumours that his decision had been influenced by the various scandals during his eight-year papacy.
These included the arrest of his personal butler for leaking private documents alleging corruption in the Vatican.
The announcement came just before the former leader of Scotland’s Catholics, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, resigned as allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. There have also been claims that Benedict’s health was failing and has deteriorated dramatically since he stepped down.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Benedict was known before he was elected Pope, has publicly admitted that, during the Conclave in 2005 to choose a successor to Pope John Paul II, he noticed the votes rise in his favour and was afraid he would be crushed by the “weight” of the papacy.
Retreating to the Sistine Chapel, beneath Michelangelo’s vast fresco of God and man reaching out to one another, he uttered a silent prayer: “Please don’t do this to me.” However as he later joked: “Evidently, this time He didn’t listen to me.”
Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, was elected as his replacement, becoming the first non-European pontiff in 1,300 years.
The notion of a Pope quitting office was unheard of in living memory until this year. It was said by Pope John Paul II to be impossible, and akin to a father “resigning” from his children.