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from issue no. 05 - 2005

The Lord chooses our poverty

Cardinal Ratzinger tells of his nomination as Archbishop of Munich and as cardinal by Paul VI in 1977 and the two conclaves of 1978

Interview to Cardinal Ratzinger by Gianni Cardinale

Pope John Paul  I with Joseph Ratzinger, 3 September 1978

Pope John Paul I with Joseph Ratzinger, 3 September 1978

The summer of 1978 was no ordinary summer for the Catholic Church. In the span of a few weeks the cardinals found themselves together twice in conclave to elect Peter’s successor. On 6 August, in fact, after fifteen years of pontificate, Paul VI, who would have been 81 the following 26 September, died. On 26 August, after a very short conclave - two days and four polls – Albino Luciani, the Patriarch of Venice, was elected pope, taking the name of John Paul I. He would have been 66 on 17 October. But he didn’t celebrate that birthday. His pontificate lasted barely thirty-three days. At dawn on 28 September the new Pontiff was found dead in his bedroom. The Sacred College therefore came together again for the conclave that on 16 October – after eight polls in three days – saw the election of the 58 year old Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, who with the name John Paul II became the first Polish pope in history, the first non-Italian for 456 years.
To recall twenty-five years later the dramatic events of that summer, 30Days asked for an account from 76 year old Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, undoubtedly the best known of the twenty-one cardinals of the current Sacred College who took part in the two conclaves of 1978. We also spoke with the Bavarian cardinal about his conversations and meetings with Pope Montini and with Luciani in 1977 and 1978.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger doesn’t need much introduction. A famous theologian from the period of the Vatican Council II, appointed Archbishop of Munich and Frisinga and made cardinal in 1977 by Paul VI, he is currently the only European cardinal created by Pope Montini who would sit in an eventual conclave. Called to Rome by Pope Wojtyla in 1981, he has since then headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the International Theological Commission. Currently he is the longest lived of the heads of department of the Roman Curia. Elected Vice-dean of the Sacred College in November 1998, he was elected Dean at the end of last year.

Your Eminence, on 24 March 1977 Paul VI named you Archbishop of Munich, three months later he created you cardinal…
JOSEPH RATZINGER: Two or three days after my episcopal consecration on 28 May I was informed of my nomination as cardinal, which therefore almost coincided with the sacramental ordination. It was a great surprise to me. I still don’t know how to explain it all to myself. I know however that Paul VI was aware of my work as theologian. So much so that some years earlier, perhaps in 1975, he had invited me to preach the spiritual exercises in the Vatican. But I didn’t feel sure enough of my Italian nor of my French to prepare and risk such a venture, and so I said no. But it was evidence that the Pope knew me. Maybe Monsignor Karl Rauber, now Nuncio in Belgium, played some part in the story. He was then a close collaborator of the Substitute Giovanni Benelli. In any case, it’s a fact, they’ve told me, that in the picking out one of the three possibles for the appointment to Munich and Frisinga, the Pope personally chose my poverty.
The consistory of 27 June 1977 was small, with only five new cardinals…
RATZINGER: Yes, we were a small group, interesting and likeable. There was Bernardin Gantin, the only one still alive apart from myself. And then Mario Luigi Ciappi, the theologian of the Pontifical House, Benelli of course, and Frantisek Tomasek who had been chosen in pectore already the year before and who received the purple along with us.
It’s said that it was Benelli, who had been appointed Archbishop of Florence on 3 June, who “chose” the names for that “mini-consistory”…
RATZINGER: Could be. I’ve never wanted, and don’t want now to explore these things. I respect Providence; what the instruments of Providence may be doesn’t interest me.
What do you remember of that ceremony?
RATZINGER: At the consigning of the biretta in the Paul VI Hall I had a great advantage over the other new cardinals. None of the other four cardinals had a large entourage with him. Benelli had worked for a long time in the Curia and was not very well known in Florence, so there weren’t many faithful from the Tuscan city; Tomasek – there was still the Iron Curtain – couldn’t have followers; Ciappi was a theologian who had always worked, so to speak, on his island; Gantin is from Benin and it’s not easy to get from Africa to Rome. I instead had a great many people: the hall was almost full of people who had come from Munich and Bavaria.
You made a splendid show…
RATZINGER: In a certain sense, yes. The applause for me was greater than for the others. You could see Munich was present. And the Pope was visibly pleased to see his choice in some way confirmed.
Were you able to have a personal conversation with the Pope on that occasion?
RATZINGER: After the liturgy, in which the Pope had consigned the ring to us, I was told that Paul VI wanted to speak to me in private audience. I had been for many years a simple professor, very far from the upper reaches of the hierarchy and I didn’t know how to behave, I felt a bit awkward in that context. I didn’t dare speak to the Pope because I still felt too simple, but he was very good and encouraged me. It was a conversation without specific intentions, he wanted to know me first hand, after maybe Benelli had spoken to him about me.
What do you remember of the last year of the pontificate of Paul VI?
RATZINGER: In that period, along with the other bishops of Bavaria, I came to Rome for the ad limina visit. And on that occasion there was a fine meeting with the Pope. Paul VI began to speak in German, he did it fairly well, but he then decided to pass to Italian in which it was easier to communicate. He spoke from the heart of his life and of his first visit to our country. He recalled that when he had been in Munich, as a young priest, he was somewhat lost and had found many people who had helped him. It was a personal conversation, without grand discourses: you could see that his heart was open and he simply wanted to share some moments with some of his brethren in the episcopate. It was a very pleasant encounter.
Did you come to Rome at other times when Paul VI was Pope?
RATZINGER: Yes, for his eightieth birthday [26 September 1977, ed.] On 16 October he celebrated a high mass in St Peter’s. I was impressed on that occasion by the way he quoted the Divine Comedy where Dante speaks about «that Rome whence Christ is Roman» [Purgatory, XXXII, 102, ed.]. Paul VI was considered a bit of an intellectual who had difficulty being warm with others. At that moment he showed an unexpected warmth for Rome itself. I didn’t know or didn’t remember those words of Dante. They impressed me very much. With those words Paul VI wanted to express his love for Rome that has become the city of the Lord, the center of his Church.
How did you learn of Pope Montini’s death?
RATZINGER: I had gone on holiday in Austria. I was informed on the very morning of 6 August that the Holy Father had suddenly fallen sick. I called the Vicar General of Munich to tell him to immediately ask the whole diocese to pray for the Pope. Then I took a little excursion and when I returned they phoned me to tell me that the Pope had gotten worse and shortly after called again to tell me he was dead. So I decided that I’d return to Munich the following morning, and that same evening the TV came to interview me. After writing a letter to the diocese I left for Rome.
Where you attended the Pope’s funeral.
RATZINGER: What struck me was the absolute simplicity of the coffin with the Gospel placed on top. The lack of ostentation, the Pope had decided on it, almost shocked me. I was also impressed by the funeral mass celebrated by Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, who being over eighty, would not take part in the conclave: he gave a very fine sermon. As did Cardinal Pericle Felici during another mass, who spoke of how during the funeral the pages of the Gospel on the Pope’s coffin had been turned by the wind. I then returned to Munich to celebrate a mass in suffrage: the cathedral was very crowded. Then I came back to Rome for the conclave.
Paul VI with Joseph Ratzinger on the occasion of his first mass as cardinal, 
29 June 1977

Paul VI with Joseph Ratzinger on the occasion of his first mass as cardinal, 29 June 1977

You were a “tyro” cardinal…
RATZINGER: I was among the youngest but, because I was a diocesan bishop, I belonged to the order of the presbyters and hence, in the protocol, I came before many Curia cardinals who belonged to the order of deacons. So I was not among the last placed. I remember that at lunch precedence was also respected and I found myself between Cardinals Silvio Oddi and Felici, two very Italian cardinals.
Did you really have an important role in that conclave?
RATZINGER: It’s true that some of us German-speaking cardinals sometimes met. Joseph Schröffer, already Prefect of Catholic Education, Joseph Höffner of Cologne, the great Franz König of Vienna – who is alive still - Alfred Bengsch of Berlin took part in those meetings; there was also Paulo Evaristo Arns and Aloísio Lorscheider, Brazilians of German origin. It was a small group. We absolutely didn’t want to decide anything, but only talk a little. I let myself be guided by Providence, listening to the names and seeing agreement was finally reached on the Patriarch of Venice.
Did you know him?
RATZINGER: Yes, I knew him personally. During the summer vacation of 1977, in August, I was staying in the diocesan seminary of Bressanone and Albino Luciani came to visit me. The Alto-Adige is a part of the ecclesiastical region of the Triveneto and he, who was a man of a exquisite courtesy, felt as Patriarch of Venice almost an obligation to go and look up his young confrere. I felt unworthy of such a visit. On that occasion I was struck by his great simplicity, and also by his wide culture. He told me he knew the area well, that he’d come there with his mother as a child on pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Pietralba, a monastery of Italian Servites lying at an altitude of a thousand meters, much visited by the faithful of the Veneto. Luciani had many fine memories of those places and not least for that he was pleased to be back in Bressanone.
You’d never met him in person before?
RATZINGER: No. As I said earlier, I had lived in the academic world, very far from hierarchies, and I didn’t know Church leaders in person.
Then you met him again?
RATZINGER: No, never before the conclave of 1978.
Did you exchange words with him on that occasion?
RATZINGER: Some, because we knew each other, but not many. There was much to do and consider.
What impression did his election make?
RATZINGER: I was very happy about it. To have as pastor of the universal Church a man of that goodness and with that luminous faith was the guarantee that things were going well. He himself was surprised and felt the weight of the great responsibility. You could see he was suffering the blow a bit. He hadn’t expected to be elected. He wasn’t a man who was after a career but thought of the posts he’d had as a service and also a suffering.
What was your last conversation with him?
RATZINGER: The day of his investiture, 3 September. The archdiocese of Munich and Frisinga is twinned with the dioceses of Ecuador and a national Marian Congress had been organized for that month of September in Guayaquil. The local episcopate had asked for me to be appointed papal delegate to the Congress. John Paul I had read the request already and decided in favor of it; so, during the traditional leave-taking of cardinals, we spoke about my trip and he invoked many blessings on me and on the whole Church of Ecuador.
Did you go to Ecuador?
RATZINGER: Yes, and precisely while I was there the news of the Pope’s death reached me. In a somewhat curious way. I was staying in the bishop’s residence in Quito. I hadn’t closed my door because in a bishop’s residence I feel in the bosom of Abraham. It was the dead of night when into my room came a swathe of light and a man dressed in the Carmelite habit. I was a bit stunned by the light and this man dressed in lugubrious fashion who looked like the bearer of bad news. I wasn’t sure if it was a dream or reality. Finally I discovered that he was an auxiliary bishop of Quito (Alberto Lunar Tobar, now archbishop emerito of Cuenca, ed.), who told me the Pope was dead. And so I learned of the sad and unexpected event. Despite the news I was able to sleep in the grace of God and the morning after I celebrated mass with a German missionary, who in the prayer of the faithful prayed «for our dead Pope John Paul I». The function was also attended by my lay secretary who at the end came to me and told me in dismay that the missionary had made a mistake with the name, that he should have prayed for Paul VI and not for John Paul I. He still hadn’t heard of the death of Albino Luciani.
You had seen the Pope at the conclave. In taking your leave of him did he look like a man who might die within the space of a month?
RATZINGER: He seemed fine to me. Certainly he didn’t give the impression of great health. But many people look frail and then live to be a hundred. He looked in good health to me. I’m no doctor, but to me he seemed a man who, like me, didn’t look to have very robust health. But these people are those who usually have greater life expectancy.
So for you it was an unexpected death?
RATZINGER: Absolutely unexpected.
Did you have any doubts when the gossip began about the Pope dying a violent death?
The Bishop of Belluno-Feltre, the Salesian Vincenzo Savio, reported receiving 17 June last the nulla osta of the Congregation of the Causes of the Saints for going ahead with the cause for the beatification of the Servant of God Albino Luciani. What do you think of the matter?
RATZINGER: Personally I’m altogether convinced he was a saint. Because of his great goodness, simplicity, humility. And for his great courage. Because he also had the courage to say things with great clarity, even going against current opinions. And also for his great culture of faith. He was not just a simple parish priest who had become patriarch by chance. He was a man of great theological culture and of great pastoral sense and experience. His writings on catechesis are precious. And his book Illustrissimi, which I read immediately after his election, is very fine. Yes, I’m convinced that he is a saint.
Even though you met him on no more than three occasions?
RATZINGER: Yes, it was enough for his luminous figure to spread that conviction in me.
When you came together for the second conclave in 1978 what was the dominant feeling in the College of Cardinals?
RATZINGER: After that sudden death we were all a bit depressed. It had been a bad blow. Of course, after the death of Paul VI there was also sadness. But Montini’s had been a whole life, that had had its natural epilogue. He himself was expecting death, he spoke about his death. After such a great pontificate there had been a new beginning, with a pope of a different type but in full continuity. But that Providence had said no to our election was really a hard blow. Though the election of Luciani was no mistake. Those thirty-three days of pontificate have had a function in the history of the Church.
Which is?
RATZINGER: It was not only the witness of goodness and of a joyful faith. But that sudden death also opened the doors to an unexpected choice. That for a non-Italian Pope.
Had the possibility been taken into consideration at the first conclave of 1978?
RATZINGER: It was also spoken of. But it wasn’t a very real possibility, not least because there was the fine figure of Albino Luciani. After it was thought that there was a need for something absolutely new.

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