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VATICAN CITY (AP) — If ever there was an heir to the intellectual legacy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, it’s Cardinal Gerhard Mueller.

Benedict gave his fellow German theologian his old job — prefect of the Vatican’s doctrine office. He entrusted his life’s theological works to Mueller, who has spent nearly two decades organizing them in a 16-volume, 25,000-page opus along the lines of Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica.”

He even gave Mueller his old flat on the top floor of a Vatican apartment building, where he had lived as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

“Of course, he took his furniture with him, but the whole thing breathes the spirit of Joseph Ratzinger,” Mueller said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, the eve of Benedict’s funeral.

He meant the flat, but he could have been referring to himself.

Mueller is one of a dwindling number of cardinals firmly associated with Benedict’s doctrinaire papacy, and he has taken up the late pope’s mantle with gusto, thanks in part to his somewhat spectacular falling out with Pope Francis.

The Jesuit pope, who succeeded Benedict after his historic 2013 resignation, dismissed Mueller in 2017 after an unusually brief, single term as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Mueller was only 69 at the time, well short of the normal retirement age. And in his free time since, besides compiling Ratzinger’s theological magnum opus, he has become something of Francis’ highest-ranking critic, singling out his two-year initiative to consult laity about everything from church teaching on sexuality to the roles of women.

“Is the church a political party or an NGO that changes all the time the program according to the applause of the multitude?” Mueller asked rhetorically as he sat in his apartment library that once belonged to Ratzinger. “Or is the church the mission of Jesus Christ, of God, to preach the Gospel?”

The numbers aren’t necessarily in his favor, as Francis has appointed 81 of the 125 cardinals who are young enough to vote in a future conclave, many of whom share the pontiff’s more pastoral approach to church leadership.

But Mueller is undeterred on resetting the church’s course. Together with Benedict’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, he seems committed to ensuring the late pope’s legacy.

Just this week, Italian publisher Piemme announced Gaenswein’s tell-all memoir, “Nothing But the Truth: My Life Beside Pope Benedict XVI,” would be published Jan. 12, a week after the pope is laid to rest. Piemme said the book would expose the “blatant calumnies” and “dark maneuvers” that sullied Benedict’s reputation, but also celebrate his historic papacy and life.

“These voices in the mass media, they abused their power for making a primitive polemics against him. But they have no future,” Mueller said of the often negative press that Benedict received. “In the long run of church history, all these stupid voices will become quiet and reason will win.”

He got up from his armchair and opened the window to show a visitor how he used to look out in the morning and wave to Benedict, who did the same from the top-floor corner apartment of the Apostolic Palace a short distance away.

“So many, many links and connections,” he said of their daily ritual.

The connections continued until recently. When Benedict announced on Feb. 11, 2013, that he would become the first pope in six centuries to resign, Mueller was marking the 35th anniversary of his priestly ordination.

On Dec. 31, the day Benedict died, Mueller turned 75.

“My 75th ‘Earthen’ birthday, and his heavenly birthday,” he said. “Coincidences. But also some divine providence.”


Geir Moulson contributed from Berlin.


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