Benedict comes home

benedict helicopterThe final act of the story is upon us. Following the announcement, the abdication, the retreat to Castel Gandolfo and the meeting with the new Pope, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI is set to come home to the Vatican this afternoon. In a reversal of that moving afternoon at the end of February, Benedict will return by helicopter, meet with some Vatican workers, including Cardinals Sodano and Bertone, before heading to the monastery in the Vatican gardens which will be his home for his remaining years. There, Pope Francis will welcome him.

Whether we’ll get to see any of this is anyone’s guess. Of course, there will be footage of the helicopter returning, but much of the return will be private, I expect. Still, there’s always the hope of getting a glimpse of our retired Holy Father. Retired, but still beloved. And like I said on that day, that feeling is mutual: “Although we may not see or even be aware of it, in the gardens of Vatican City there will be a loving heart, continuously praying for all of us.”

Photo credit: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

As two Popes meet, a glimpse of the other Benedict

benedict francis

Although the amount of footage and the number of photographs of his meeting with Pope Francis was understandably small, it was good to see Pope Benedict XVI again.

The past month (and a bit) may have been intense for us, it must have been at least equally so for the retired Pontiff. The relative solitude of Castel Gandolfo, not to mention its location away from the heartland of the Catholic world, must have been good to him. His somewhat diminished posture, not to mention his slower walking speed, are testament to that. Perhaps Benedict has only now been able to allow himself the peace and time that he needs at almost 86. This, then, is the private Benedict, who knows when to take his time and who can do so when needed. No demands or pressures on his shoulders anymore, except the ones he promised to continue bearing when he bade us all farewell, less than a month ago: the unceasing duty of prayer for the ones he was once called to shepherd as Pope.

There is a new Pope, but we also still have our emeritus Pope. Let’s not forget him, and let’s certainly not pretend that there is some sort of division or even opposition between Benedict XVI and Francis. These days, Peter exists in twofold, in prayer and contemplation, and in practice and government.

Meeting of the Popes

Today we will see something that, we can truly say, has never happened before. A sitting Pope meeting his predecessor over lunch. At noon, Pope Francis will take his first papal helicopter flight and make his first visit to Castel Gandolfo where he will meet with emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. What the two will discuss will undoubtedly remain a guess for now (we may hope for some report on the meeting, as well as some remarkable photo opportunities, but that is by no means certain).

benedict castel gandolfo

In a way, we may see this as the final act of the true “handover”, although the meeting has no canonical weight whatsoever. Befitting Pope Francis, he will first and foremost visit Benedict out of courtesy, friendship and love. That, it would seem after ten days, is a very strong driving force behind his actions.

In a few months, Benedict XVI will return to the Vatican to take up his final residence in the Vatican gardens monastery. Will we see or hear anything about that, except for helicopter sightings and a media release? I personally doubt it it very much.

Photo credit: Osservatore Romano

“This day for me is different” – the end of eight years of Benedict

benedict cardinalsOn his first full day as Pope emeritus Benedict XVI offered Mass, read in the books he brought with him and took a walk through the Castel Gandolfo gardens while praying the Rosary. The evening before, which capped an eventful day the likes of which the Church has never seen before, and most likely will not see for a long time, Benedict spent watching the news and reading some of the messages he received. Father Federico Lombardi told the assembled press this in what was the first of daily press briefings during the sede vacante.

Reading this today was actually rather comforting, because yesterday was quite eventful, even for one who watched the main events via the Vatican video player. As unlikely as it may sometimes seem, there was definitely a personal factor; it was less the departure of a high official, and more the passing of a beloved family member. While the morning meeting with the cardinals assembled in Rome (pictured above) was a very affectionate event, with quite a lot of smiles and  laughter (standing out was the joke and the laugh that Cardinal Tagle seemingly shared with the Holy Father), the afternoon was totally different.

The tone was set with the first appearance of the Pope on the screen, bidding his farewells to the vicars general of his diocese, Cardinals Vallini and Comastri. Neither kept a dry eye, and especially touching I found Cardinal Vallini briefly squeezing Archbishop Gänswein’s hand as a sign of support. The latter subsequently had to employ a tissue to dry his eyes as well.

And then, after the fifteen-minute helicopter flight to Castel Gandolfo, there was the epilogue to almost eight years of Benedict XVI, and it was as simple and to the point as the Pope emeritus himself.

benedict castel gandolfo

“Thank you!

Thank you all!

Dear friends, I am happy to be with you, surrounded by the beauty of Creation and your affection that does me much good. Thank you for your friendship, your love, [applause] …

You know that this day for me is different from previous ones: I am no longer the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church: until eight in the evening I will be still, and then no longer. I am simply a pilgrim who begins the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth.

But I wish still [applause – thank you!] … but I wish still with my heart, my love, my prayer, my reflection, with all my inner strength, to work for the common good and the good of the Church and of humanity. And I feel very much supported by your affection.

Let’s go forward with the Lord for the good of the Church and the world.

Thank you, I give you now [applause] … with all my heart, my blessing.

Thank you, good night! Thank you all!”

And so, a final two-handed wave (not unlike, as some have noted, that first gesture we saw back in April of 2005), and the Pope returned inside. And then, less than three hours later, it was over. The doors closed, the Swiss Guards returned to their barracks, and the sede vacante began.

It was a farewell: we have seen our last of Benedict. But it’s not a farewell: he is still there with us, not in plain sight, but as close as ever in prayer and in the unity of the Holy Spirit. So, while we mourn a loss, we have also gained something. But it will take some getting used too, that much is certain.

The rollercoaster starts

benedict tiredAnd here we go… Today we enter the last two days of the 265th papacy. As Benedict undoubtedly looks forward to starting the twilight years of his service to the Church, in St. Peter’s  Square, the crowds have been lining up since the early hours of the morning to get their final glimpse of our Holy Father.

Set to begin at 10:30 local time, Pope Benedict XVI’s final general audience promises to be only a slight departure from the norm. The Holy Father will teach one last time, but we’ll have to wait and see what his choice of topic will be. He will take an extra long tour across the square before returning to the Apostolic Palace, where he will meet with some of the dignitaries who have travelled to Rome today. There will be no brief meetings with visiting prelates and pilgrim groups at the end of the audience this time around.

And at the same time this will be like no other general audience before. It will be a historical event: an abdicating Pope bidding farewell to his flock – present in the tens of thousands in Rome, and in the hundreds of millions across the globe. And without doubt it will be emotional. Unavoidable distant in space, the Holy Father is still close in the hearts of many, not least mine.

Sure, we will see him in images and video tomorrow, as he bids his farewells to the cardinals and the Curia, with Cardinal Bertone seeing him off from the Vatican, and Cardinal Sodano greeting him one last time on the helicopter pad at 5pm tomorrow afternoon. Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, the Governor of the Vatican City State, will welcome the Pope at Castel Gandolfo. Appearing on the balcony of the traditional papal summer residence, we will what now seems to be our last glimpse of the Pope, hours before he becomes Pope Emeritus. at 8pm. At that point the Swiss Guards will  salute and depart – tasked as they are with the protection of the Roman Pontiff, and tomorrow evening there will be no such person…

And after that rollercoaster ride the next will probably stand ready on Monday, as the cardinals will start their General Congregations in preparation of the conclave.

Photo credit: Looking more tired than we have seen him before, Pope Benedict XVI sits before his last Angelus prayer on Sunday [l’Osservatore Romano].

Business as usual – Pope Benedict’s last weeks

benedictIn a third press briefing in as many days, Fr. Federico Lombardi shared the schedule of Pope Benedict’s final days as Pope. As indicated earlier it is nothing out of the ordinary (if you can call such a busy schedule normal for a man of almost 86…) and befitting the personality of the Holy Father. His decision to abdicate, momentous as it is, is also an exercise in humility.  And, if anything, Pope Benedict is a humble man, never working for himself, never seeking the spotlight. Reflecting this, Fr. Dwight Longenecker has a lovely anecdote:

“I met Joseph Ratzinger once on a visit to Rome. I was walking across St Peter’s Square when I noticed the famous figure of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith heading across the square wearing a cassock, overcoat and simple black beret. I smiled and bid him good morning. He smiled back politely and nodded and went on his way to the office. He always did seem better behind the scenes.

His farewell this week was rather like my meeting with him. A simple man walking across the public square of history–happy to be headed to the privacy of his study–where he has some work to do.”

Anyway, on to the schedule:

ash wednesday st. peter's squareWednesday 13 February, Ash Wednesday: In his last public liturgical celebration, Pope Benedict XVI will offer Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Thousands of people are already queueing on St. Peter’s Square to attend this Mass, as pictured at right.

Thursday 14 February: The Holy Father will meet with priests of the Diocese of Rome.

Friday 15 February: A meeting with President Traian Basescu of Romania, followed by a group of Italian bishops on their ad limina visit.

Saturday 16 February: Meetings with President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, a group of Italian bishops on their ad limina visit, and Prime Minister Mario Monti of Italy.

Sunday 17 February: Pope Benedict will pray the Angelus with faithful in St. Peter’s Square, and in the evening he and members of the Curia will start their Lenten retreat. Cardinal Ravasi will lead this retreat, and no activities are planned until the 24th.

Sunday 24 February: Pope Benedict will pray the Angelus with faithful in St. Peter’s Square.

Monday 25 February: A meeting with several cardinals.

Wednesday 27 February: Pope Benedict will hold his final general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

Thursday 28 February: Following a farewell address to the College of Cardinals, a helicopter will take the Pope to Castel Gandolfo at 5pm. At 8 o’clock in the evening, the See of Peter falls vacant.

Photo credit: [1] l’Osservatore Romano, [2] Catholic News Service

Two more weeks of Benedict, and then what?

benedictCome the evening of 28 February, the Church will have to make do without a Supreme Pontiff. For how long, we don’t know, and it is certainly a different situation than the last time this happened.

A pope stepping down, a conclave without mourning a deceased Holy Father, but with the all the chaos, temporary suspensions of functions and preparations to gather all the cardinals and prepare the Sistine Chapel that come with the election of a new pope.

So what can we expect in the coming weeks, which will certainly be interesting, emotional and exciting?

Things will change at the time that Pope Benedict XVI has indicated: 8pm on Thursday 28 February. At that time, he will no longer be pope, and the See of Peter will be officially vacant. Pope Benedict XVI will then no longer be called that, although it remains to be seen how we will refer to him in the future. The former Pope will remove to Castel Gandolfo and, at a later date, he will take up residence in a monastery within the Vatican walls.

A limited set of duties normally held by the Pope, will fall to the College of Cardinals. The heads of the Curial offices will resign as well, although they will be reinstated by the new pope, as is standard. The exceptions are Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as  Camerlengo – he will continue to manage the properties of the Church; Cardinal Manuel Monteiro de Castro as Major Penitentiary; and all Holy See representatives across the world. The vicars-general of the Diocese of Rome, Cardinals Angelo Comastri and Agostino Vallini, will also continue in their pastoral duties.

Papal Conclave-005The major event of the sede vacante will of course be the conclave to elect the new Pope. During today’s press briefing, Fr. Federico Lombardi said that this will take place in mid-March, and we’ll have a new Pope before Easter. Barring any deaths, 117 cardinal electors will travel to Rome to participate in the conclave.

Several cardinals and other officials will have specific duties in the conclave. The Dean of the College Cardinals, being over 80, will not be present, so his duties will be taken over by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re. Also accompanying the cardinals will be Msgr. Guido Marini, the Papal Master of Ceremonies. He will lock the door of the Sistine Chapel, after calling “Extra omnes!”, “Everybody (who is not an elector), out!”. Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary of the College of Cardinals, will also be present. Neither of them will, however, attend the actual voting.

The conclave may take several days and will take place in utter secrecy. Although the electors are not obliged to elect one of their own, they most probably will. On this page I provide a  list of members of the College of Cardinals. The names in bold are those of cardinal electors at this moment. One name will be removed from that list, as Cardinal Lubomyr Husar will reach the age of 80 before the Pope’s retirement. A closer look at the electors and some guesses about the future will follow later.

Photo credit: [1] Visibly aged since his election, Pope Benedict pictured during a visit to a seminary in Rome, last week.