Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization disagrees with the title “pope emeritus” when referring to Benedict XVI—or for any future pope who might follow Benedict’s footsteps to abdicate and become an emeritus pontiff. The Catholic Herald reports the archbishop’s comments were made at an unveiling of Italian journalist Mammo Muolo’s book, Il Papa del coraggio, (The Pope of Courage).
The use of the title “pope emeritus,” Archbishop Fisichella said, “theologically creates more problems than solving them.” The Herald noted Fisichella added, “I respect it, but I will not use it,” instead opting to wait “for ‘another expression’ to describe the former pontiff.”
That alternate expression was lobbied by Benedict himself in 2014, when he revealed that if he had enough strength at the time of his resignation in 2013 he would have pushed to be called “Father Benedict.” The reluctance to acknowledge this desire among both church hierarchy and faithful is one matter, but on the other hand, the ones who have most embraced the former pontiff’s wish are the faithful themselves.
In 2014, CNA’s Elise Harris reported on the name “Father Benedict.” Benedict XVI had revealed in a private conversation to Jorg Bremer of the German publication F.A.Z. that this was his desire in 2013 but “was too weak at that point to enforce it.” Harris writes, “At least part of the reason for wanting his new title to simply be ‘Father’ rather than Pope Emeritus or Benedict XVI is to put more space between him and the role of the pope, so that there is no confusion as to who the ‘true Pope’ is.”
It also signals who Joseph Ratzinger is more than anything else a priest—albeit one who happened to be a former pope, cardinal prefect, archbishop, and towering professor-theologian.
The use of the name “Father Benedict” reminds everyone that even those at the top of the Church hierarchy are still priests, still obedient servants to both the God they have given their life and the faithful entrusted to their care. For Father Benedict, enclosed in prayer in the Vatican monastery, whose occasional appearances, messages, and homilies are not unlike a 90-year-old retired priest still living in residence at a parish—only this parish is within the Diocese of Rome, and the retired pastor was known for eight years as Benedict XVI.
Joseph Ratzinger also likely knew the precedent he was setting in stepping down. The confusion over the usage of “pope emeritus” coupled with Benedict’s own weakness to fully implement in his normal clear tone at the time of his resignation has now created the kind of disagreement about the name that Archbishop Fisichella and others has promulgated.
The name “Father Benedict” also implies both anonymity and humility, a rather laconic description of one who once shook the status quo again and again. Yet with the passage of time and future popes inevitably follow the steps of someone able to recognize his own limitations out of duty to the Church, perhaps a new school of “Church Fathers” will rise. However, Benedict’s mostly tight-lipped decision not to continue publishing may set its own precedent. Perhaps one day we will have in our hands the Complete Works of Father Benedict from his retirement years as an addition to Ratzinger’s growing Opera Omnia collection.
Joseph Ratzinger has adopted many names throughout his lifetime. He is one of few popes known for his significant contributions to faith and culture before assuming Benedict XVI; he was known for two generations as “Cardinal Ratzinger.” Before Paul VI conferred on him his cardinal’s hat, classrooms were packed to hear the latest lecture from Professor Ratzinger. And before hitting his professional stride, the young priest ordained with his brother on the feast of Saints Peter & Paul in 1951 was a simple parish priest, “Father Joseph.”
At each stage of his life, Joseph Ratzinger has weathered the fleeting criticisms of the time to ensure his vision of conversion to Christ. Now, he needs help. In a time of turmoil and confusion, the frail Bavarian relies on the faithful to help set the course of what a retired pope might look like. Now in his fourth year of retirement and in the light of his 90th birthday, Joseph Ratzinger needs word of mouth to spread that while there is an emeritus pope behind Vatican walls, he only simply wishes to be called “Father Benedict.”