A former translator of Benedict XVI has predicted that the retired pontiff’s legacy will only grow, given the “wonderful freshness” and clarity of his writings.
“I think the judgment of history will be very kind, very generous, because once all the topical controversies have moved into the past, people will see what he said in all of its luminous clarity,” Monsignor Philip Whitmore, Rector of the English College in Rome, told CNA Feb. 10.
He said the retired pontiff will “really be admired and respected for the great man, for the great teacher that he was.”
Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation from the papacy on Feb. 11, 2013. He said that he no longer had the strength to continue the duties required by his role. He moved to Mater Ecclesiae Monastery in Vatican City, where he spends much of his time in prayer.
Msgr. Whitmore has lived in Rome for 15 years, working in the Roman Curia. He became a college rector in September 2013.
He knew Pope Benedict XVI before his 2005 election to the papacy, when the man then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Msgr. Whitmore helped the congregation in its English-language work before it expanded its staff.
“The legacy of Pope Benedict above all will be his writings, his teachings. He has a wonderful freshness, a wonderful clarity, wonderful insights all through his writings,” said the priest.
He noted the retired Pope’s homilies, encyclicals, and speeches during his world travels, particularly singling out for praise Benedict XVI’s “Jesus of Nazareth” books.
Msgr. Whitmore worked for five years in the Congregation for Bishops and for nine years in the Holy See’s Secretariat of State. Under Benedict XVI, he prepared drafts and translations of many papal writings before sending them to the papal apartment for approval.
“If he approved of them, he’d have ‘B16’ written underneath in tiny, tiny writing,” the priest said. “He has about the smallest writing of anyone I’d ever known.”
He said the Pope’s “substantial” body of teaching will be read “not only for years, but, I think, centuries.”
“In the centuries to come, I’m sure, we’ll find readings from Benedict XVI in the breviary, just as we find readings from earlier popes now. That will be the lasting legacy.”
Msgr. Whitmore praised Benedict XVI as “a man of tremendous integrity and honesty” who would express himself “very, very simply” and “very, very clearly.”
He suggested this played a role in media misunderstandings of the Pope.
“He was, if you like, a man without guile,” the monsignor said. “Sometimes in order to play the media game, you need to have a little bit of guile. You need to be able to wrap up other things that you’re going to say in terms and expressions that press the right buttons. That wasn’t really who he was, that wasn’t where he was coming from.”
“He would say things beautifully, simply, clearly. For those with ears to hear and eyes to see, I think it was very clear.”
Msgr. Whitmore is among those who hope “very much” that Benedict XVI will be named a Doctor of the Church because he was “such a great teacher.”
“Of course, he has to be canonized first. If that happens, then I would think it would be a very, very natural step to proclaim him a Doctor of the Church.”
The priest also sees continuity between the papacies of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, predicting that this will become “much clearer in the course of history.”
Their message is “exactly the same,” he said.
“There’s a difference in style, and that’s to be expected. There’s always been a difference in style from one Pope to the next. We forget sometimes how absolutely normal that is. For all the differences in style, the message is the same, the truth is there.”
The priest noted that Pope Francis has said “a number of times how much he admires Pope Benedict, how much he loves him, how much he is happy to have him there.”
In Msgr. Whitmore’s view, Benedict is “a kind of grandfather” that Pope Francis can turn to and ask questions.
Reflecting on the one-year anniversary of Benedict’s resignation announcement, the priest recalled being “very surprised” when he first heard the news, but said the Pope “gave us plenty of warning.”
Benedict XVI said in an interview published in the book “Light of the World” that if a Pope felt the task was beyond his physical or spiritual capabilities, including his stamina, it would be appropriate to resign.
“On reflection, I think we saw that it was a very wise, and a very gracious and a very humble move,” Msgr. Whitmore said. “We were sad, of course, to see him go, but then, we got a new Holy Father, and our hearts were filled with joy.”
Kerri Lenartowick contributed to this report.