VATICAN CITY – On an April 2009 visit to the Italian mountain town of Sulmona, Pope Benedict XVI solemnly placed his pallium, the vestment symbolizing his papal authority, on the tomb of Celestine V. The medieval pontiff’s abdication in 1294 had resulted in imprisonment by his successor and banishment to hell by Dante for “the great refusal.” Benedict is no doubt hoping for a better retirement plan.
At 8 p.m. Thursday, the Swiss Guards protecting the 85-year-old Benedict will stand down as he becomes the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign. He will then recede into history but also behind the Vatican’s walls, where he has said he will be “hidden from the world.”
Unlike fellow octogenarians playing bocce ball or shuffleboard, the daily activities of the departing sovereign are shrouded in mystery. On Tuesday, the Vatican revealed that Benedict, who spent the morning packing, would be known as emeritus pope, keeping his white cassock but trading in his red shoes for a pair of hand-cobbled brown loafers made in Mexico.
Benedict will spend the next few months in his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, a small lake town about 24 km outside Rome, as he awaits the completion of renovations on a residence attached to the Mater Ecclesiae monastery. There, he plans to while away the rest of his days poring over books and Bibles.
“The 8,600-sq.-foot (800-sq.-meter) complex on a hill west of the apse of St. Peter’s Basilica, not far from the grotto where he likes to take his afternoon walk, will for Benedict be the papal version of Boca. “A place of the sacred, given its style as a hermitage,” according to the Vatican website.
Pope John Paul II established it as a convent for nuns providing him with spiritual assistance in 1994. In November, an order was moved out so that the site could undergo renovations. On a recent visit, the eagle-topped fountain commissioned by Pius XI below the monastery poured turquoise water out of a series of spouts and waterfalls as prelates warned about the especially bloodthirsty tiger mosquitoes that swarm in the summer.
Benedict will share his retirement home with his longtime housekeepers, the consecrated laywomen who belong to the Memores Domini association of Communion and Liberation, a religious movement that has become controversial for its propinquity to power players in Italy. Asked at a recent press briefing whether Benedict would receive a pension, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, responded that although a retirement fund had not been established, “obviously he will be taken care of.”
The pope’s retirement complex will also be home to Archbishop Georg Ganswein, aka Gorgeous George, Benedict’s longtime confidante and personal secretary. But Ganswein will keep his day job as the new head of the papal household. His simultaneous service to two popes has raised some concerns in the Vatican about a conflict of interest, but the church insists that Benedict will not be an eminence grise.
“He’s not going to be a meddling pope whatsoever,” said the Rev. Tom Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, who said popes often consult the writings of their previous successors to St. Peter or turn in prayer to their predecessors buried in the tombs under St. Peter’s Basilica. “What’s better than to take a stroll in the gardens for a consultation? What better person to turn to than the one who has been there?”
Still, there has been good reason why popes haven’t stepped down in past centuries, given the possibility for divided allegiances and even schism. But the Vatican insists that while the situation created by Benedict’s retirement is certainly unique, no major conflicts will arise.
“According to the evolution of Catholic doctrine and mentality, there is only one pope. Clearly it’s a new situation, but I don’t think there will be problems,” Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, said in an interview.
That’s the best-case scenario. It’s not the universal view within the Vatican, where there is a sense of bewilderment and even a touch, though never uttered near the record, of resentment about the pope leaving them in the lurch.
Benedict’s papacy was often tripped up by public relations missteps and inconvenient revelations about dysfunction within the Vatican, but the last year of his tenure was especially hard on him and the Vatican. A security breach of papal correspondence exploded into the scandal known as VatiLeaks, and this month a parade of freshly revealed scandals involving top cardinals is accompanying Benedict to the door.
Some critics have suggested that Benedict is using the Vatican walls as a fortress against future scandals. In the meantime, the Vatican has occupied itself with such vexing questions as, what’s in a name?
On Monday afternoon, a day before the Vatican unveiled the title emeritus pope, Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata, the No. 2 official overseeing the church during the interregnum between the pope’s last day and the election of a new pontiff, made the case against calling Benedict just that. “An emeritus bishop reserves some rights,” Celata said. “He still has a connection to the office.”
The church believes that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger transformed into Benedict XVI in 2005. By personally choosing to retain the official title “Your Holiness Benedict XVI,” the pope apparently believed there was no going back.
In his final weekly blessing to a large crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, Benedict appeared from the window of his apartment in the Apostolic Palace and ensured the faithful that his future of prayer and meditation “doesn’t mean abandoning the church. On the contrary, if God asks me, this is because I can continue to serve it with the same dedication and the same love which I have tried to do so until now, but in a way more suitable to my age and to my strength,” he said.
Like the pope, some people in the square seemed ready to move on.
“I want to see him for the last time,” said Gregory Esola, 54, a Catholic from Cameroon who has worked in Rome for nearly 30 years. As the pope’s assistants draped a crimson flag with the papal seal out of the pope’s window, Esola said he appreciated Benedict’s stepping aside for the sake of the church: “The devil is in the church, and he’s too old to combat it. We need somebody who is young and powerful now.”
Further back in the crowd, Domenico Giacchini, a 55-year-old consultant from Rome, held up one end of a 7.5-meter-long banner reading Communion and Liberation, the order to which the pope’s housekeepers belong. He said that although he is honored that the Memores Domini would be looking after the pope, the resigning pontiff had taught him to disregard pride.
“Pride doesn’t exist,” he said. “We won’t talk about pride, it’s about serving Christ.”