As Pope Benedict XVI prepares for his last weeks in office, we speak with Father Don Senior about what it's like to live in Vatican City. Senior, president of the CatholicTheological Union, is also a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission--a body that interprets Biblical questions at the pope's request. Senior has served on the committee for the past two popes; when John Paul II was pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led the commission. Senior spends about 8 days each year in the Vatican for his work.
How did the styles of the two popes you worked with differ?
Pope John Paul II was very extroverted at his full strength. He always had a crowd of people at lunch and dinner. Pope Benedict XVI is a much more reserved, quiet person. He would eat lunch with his personal staff and his secretary. He was like a Bavarian grandfather they said, asking how they were, and how their families were. His brother often comes down--he has macular degeneration. The pope would assign a helper to read his brother an assigned reading, and then over lunch they would discuss it--like a play from Moliere. He is very genteel.
Would you call the pope an introvert?
Although he is a reserved man without the charisma of John Paul, people tell me the number of people coming for public audience is larger for Benedict. I think John Paul created the environment of the pope as a rock star. Benedict doesn’t have that impact, but he’s kept up the travels. It’s part of the reason for his resignation--he doesn’t have the energy to continue all that. Spending time with him, you could see him declining in his strength over the years. I’ve seen his printed schedule, and it is one delegation after another of bishops and heads of state. It’s much more publicly exposed than it’s traditionally been.
What questions would you be asked to answer as part of the pope's commission?
We would prepare position papers on certain issues--one recent task was to determine the relationship of the Old and New Testament. It tried to show the debt that is owed to Judaism. One of the things we are working on now--there’s a concern that evangelical missionaries have a literal sense of the truth of the Bible, a very fundamentalist view. We were asked to elaborate on a Catholic perspective on the truth of the Bible. Sometimes they are smaller questions; this one has been in the works for 2-3 years.
It’s reported that Pope Benedict will retire to a monastery inside Vatican City. Have you been to the area where he would live? What is it like?
Vatican City is dominated by St. Peter's Basilica and the papal apartments and the museum, and then a number of medieval buildings where various offices are located. Behind St. Peters, in an off-limits area, there are extensive formal gardens, some small residences, and places where the pope can walk quietly. I have been there. The commission stays in the House of St. Martha, and it is where the cardinals stay when they come for the conclave [to elect a new pope]. You are given access--a keychain actually, though it’s hi-tech with a key code. It’s a very quiet, beautifully landscaped garden area. It’s very peaceful, very lovely. You’re in the midst of Rome, but in the eye of a hurricane. It’s almost like a monastic enclosure. It’s a strange feeling actually. It would fit him for his remaining life of prayer.
I’ve read in several different articles today that the pope “carom[ed] from one crisis to the next.” What was his leadership style like?
You hear different estimations on that part. During his time, there were a lot of turbulent events not created by the pope. Some say that he was not a good manager and did not put in place strong heads of departments that could help him. There’s his famous speech with a quotation about Muslims in Ravensburg. I think that shows he was not well served. But people said the same thing of John Paul--that he traveled so much, he was not a good leader of the Vatican. Some say the next pope will have to give more attention to the Vatican bureaucracy, and there will be sweeping changes of positions there. Benedict was a humble person--not incompetent--he knew where all the bodies were buried, but did not have the personal force to impose his will.
Some have commented that he is “shrinking” the papacy by his resignation, focusing more on the office than a personal connection with the pope.
I think he’s approaching the papacy with a realism to say this is not anybody’s birthright. It is a position of responsibility within the church. It’s not to be a monarch forever. This takes the papacy out of a personal dignity, and puts it into an act of service. It’s a ministry in the church, a high office. It’s all new terrain. From the pope’s character, I think he’s of enormous discretion, and don’t think he will interfere.
Interview has been condensed and edited