On Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI retired from a Catholic Church shaken by his own prejudice, sex and financial scandals and declining membership. His successor, who will be elected in time for Easter by a specially convened conclave of cardinals from around the world, has a tough task ahead of him if he is to more adequately fill those famous papal red shoes, writes J BROOKS SPECTOR.
After an increasingly tumultuous time as head of the world’s Roman Catholic Church, Benedict XVI left Rome for Castel Gandolfo on Thursday – the Vatican’s summer home in the hills south of Rome – as he became the first Catholic Church leader to resign in 598 years. He initially announced on 11 February that he would step down, citing a lack of strength to continue in his position.
And so, at 19:00 GMT, Benedict XVI ceased being pope, leaving his deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, in temporary charge of a church that counts some 1.2 billion adherents around the world. Cardinal Bertone will remain at the helm until a new pope is elected in mid March by a specially convened conclave of cardinals from around the world – save for those over the age of 80.
The last pope to resign was Gregory XII, who abdicated in 1415 in an effort to bring to an end the Great Western Schism. The schism was a two-generation-long split over the leadership of the Catholic Church in Western Europe.
Before becoming the pope, Benedict XVI was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, on 16 April 1927. During World War II, he had been required to join a Hitler Youth Formation as a reluctant teenager and then eventually was drafted into the German military even while he was a seminary student. When elected pope, on 24 April 2005, he became the 265th leader and part of a line that stretched back to St Peter and the very early years of the Catholic Church.
Benedict XVI was ordained as a priest in 1951. He quickly gained a reputation as an academic theologian and he eventually had a long academic career as a professor and university head. When Pope Paul VI appointed him as a cardinal, his elevation was regarded as an unusual promotion for a priest who had had so little actual pastoral experience. In 1981 he came to Rome to become Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, becoming, in effect, one of the most important theocratic bureaucrats in the church.
Benedict XVI’s tenure as pope, however, has not been a happy or particularly successful one by many measures. A multinational, rolling wave of priestly sex scandals has cost the church prestige and moral stature – and this pope has often seemed unable to take a firm stance that could bring this problem to a conclusive end.
Reflecting upon this, one Vatican insider told reporters the next pope must carry out much more vigorously efforts against this stain that Benedict eventually had undertaken, in order to counter these recurring scandals of clerical sexual abuse of children and other parishioners. Or as this priest told reporters, “Speaking as a Catholic priest myself it’s something that blights our church; that affects our whole role as priests in the church. It’s clear that there’s a long way to go before healing occurs and before the whole issue is consigned to the past.”
In addition, during his office, via a number of ill-advised public pronouncements, Benedict XVI managed to upset relations with other faiths through ill-chosen, even prejudicial, phrases. By the time he had decided to step down, the prestige of the church had been shaken in a way that would hardly have been predicted a decade earlier.
As he wound up his final moments as the pope, Benedict XVI told the cardinals who will elect his successor that they should be “like an orchestra” that comes together for the good of their church. After thanking the more than 100 cardinals as a group, he greeted each one individually, holding their hands as they took off the red skullcaps they all wear and they each then kissed his ring. He had told the gathering that “I will be close to you in prayer”. Benedict or his predecessor, John Paul II had appointed many of them and they are generally regarded as supporters of his brand of doctrinal conservatism.
He also pledged he would behave with “unconditional reverence and obedience” toward his successor, rather than try to rule the Vatican City – and his church – from his retirement home. This was an apparent effort to allay concerns about what it would mean, exactly, to have two popes residing in the Vatican.
On Thursday, 28 February, on his final day as pope, Benedict XVI greeted well-wishers one last time, telling those who had gathered to see him at the summer retreat of Castel Gandolfo that he is now starting out on the last stage of his life, now as a “simple pilgrim”. Benedict had arrived at this retreat following an emotional farewell at the Vatican. Aides wept and the famed Swiss Guards stood at attention for him one last time before getting a chance to take a bit of leave, now that they have no pope to protect. Bells tolled, the papal helicopter did a fly-by around St Peter’s Square and then they rang again when he arrived at Castel Gandolfo.
From 1 March onward, he will continue to be known as Benedict XVI, with the new title of “pope emeritus”. He will wear a simple white cassock rather than the more elaborate papal garb he’s been used to for years and he will no longer step into those famous red papal shoes every morning. Now he will wear more workmanlike, simple brown ones. The red colour of the official papal shoes is said to be symbolic of the blood of early Christian martyrs. And his so-called “Fisherman’s Ring”, that special signet ring with the pope’s name engraved in it and that is used to place an imprint on some official documents, as well as the lead seal of his pontificate, will now be destroyed. Benedict will live in Castel Gandolfo at first and he is expected to stay there for a few months before returning to live at the Vatican in a convent whose gardens will give him a prime view of St Peter’s Basilica.
The conclave to elect the new pope should begin in mid-March, but even that meeting will not manage to be free of the taint of sexual scandal that dogged Benedict’s tenure. Earlier this week, Britain’s senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, announced he would not join in this conclave, now that he too has been accused of “inappropriate acts” with several priests – even though he has denied the charges.
On Monday, Benedict also met one last time with three cardinals he had tasked with investigating yet another scandal. Hundreds of confidential documents from the Vatican have been leaked to the media and they were subsequently collected and published in one volume last May. This was the worst security breach in the church’s modern history, detailing influence peddling and various other clearly non-religious activities by supposedly religious folks. And a weekly Italian magazine, Panorama, has also reported that the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, had been running his own investigation into this affair, including arranging wiretaps on the phones of some members of the Vatican hierarchy.
The next man selected to lead the Roman Catholic Church will have to confront both these continuing sexual scandals and problems with the internal affairs at the heart of the church. But he will also have to deal creatively with the decline in support for the church in many European nations as well as the shift of the centre of gravity among its adherents to the global South – in Latin America and Africa. There are also other tensions such as a sub rosa debate about the possibility of female priests and even marriage by priests, among other topics. Meanwhile, the shift in the location of the majority of the church’s members has led to speculation that the time is finally here for a pope to be picked from among the cardinals of these regions, rather than from Europe.
However, more than half of the current cardinals come from Europe and half of those are Italian. Accordingly, in spite of the exciting ideas in Morris West’s novel (and the Anthony Quinn cinematic vehicle made from it), The Shoes of the Fisherman, in which ex-Gulag prisoner and Russian archbishop is suddenly elected pope in the midst of the global turmoil of an imminent Soviet-Chinese nuclear war, it still seems unlikely the cardinals will be quite that adventurous – just yet anyway. DM
Photo: Pope Benedict XVI waves for the last time from balcony of his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, February 28, 2013. Pope Benedict slips quietly from the world stage on Thursday after a private last goodbye to his cardinals and a short flight to a country palace to enter the final phase of his life “hidden from the world”. REUTERS/ Tony Gentile
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