Life After the Papacy: What Lies Ahead for the Pope Post-Abdication

Even as his resignation looms, many details of precedent and procedure remain unresolved — and that may cause problems in a church where the symbolic is often the same as the substantial

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Pope Benedict XVI attends a meeting with his cardinals during a farewell ceremony in the Clementine Hall of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace on February 28, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.


With an emotional signoff Thursday from the highest balcony of his temporary home at Castel Gandolfo, Benedict XVI became the first pope in 600 years to relinquish his title, leaving the Vatican without a leader as the College of Cardinals prepares to elect a new Pope. The gathered onlookers were filled with cheers and tears as Benedict, calling himself “just a pilgrim,” announced his crossing back into private life. Effective 8 p.m. Vatican time Thursday evening, Benedict XVI becomes known as “Pope Emeritus” and abdicates the rights and responsibilities that come with being the pontiff of the Catholic Church.

He promised his unconditional support and reverence during a day of meetings in the Vatican, where he discussed the selection of his successor. Later, he was loaded into an Italian air force helicopter, en route to the papal summer home at Castel Gandolfo, in the hilly, picturesque Roman suburbs. As the chopper hovered over the Vatican, church bells rang out loudly.

His piano and his beloved books followed the ex-Pontiff on the short trip Thursday afternoon from the Apostolic Palace — Sixtus V’s majestic palazzo that has served as the Popes’ living quarters and main office since the 16th century — to Mater Ecclesiae, which despite a name that means the Mother of the Church in Latin, is the small Vatican convent where he will spend his last years.

All the other papal paraphernalia — the Renaissance masterpieces on the walls of his study, the ancient cabinets and tapestries, the gifts from heads of state and Cardinals who visited from all over the world, the files and documents that detail the thousand issues the leader of the world’s largest church must face every day — all these will remain where they are. And the man who once was Pope Benedict XVI probably won’t miss them.

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Joseph Ratzinger was 78 when he was elected to the papacy, and he had never been shy about saying that after serving as Pope John Paul II’s doctrinal enforcer for almost a quarter century, he wanted to retire to a quieter life, perhaps spending more time with his beloved older brother Georg, a choirmaster in their native Germany and a fellow priest. The Cardinals — and, for Catholics, the Holy Spirit — chose otherwise on April 19, 2005 and he was elected Pope, taking the name Benedict XVI.

But after nearly eight years marked by global crises and internal struggles, Benedict took the matter in his own hands and announced his resignation on Feb. 11. His brother Georg Ratzinger was one of the few people to whom Benedict had confided his choice — and has been of its strongest supporters despite the shock and sometimes dismay of the world’s Catholics. “Of course I was saddened … but I am a practical person and I know that human forces can become inadequate for that role,” the brother told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera on Feb. 21.

The big change from his original retirement plan is that Benedict will not return home to Germany, continuing to live in the Vatican. According to analysts, this is a consequence of his desire not to create an alternative power center for believers unhappy with any future Pope. But it has raised a host of unprecedented issues for the Catholic Church.

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The simple act of resigning from one of the world’s most daunting jobs — one that combines the role of spiritual leader to a flock of over 1 billion, absolute monarch of a tiny but fully functioning state and administrative head of a global bureaucracy of hundreds of thousands people — is not uncomplicated. The Vatican is still grappling with the consequences of Benedict’s gesture and its yet unfathomed ramifications. While church law envisaged papal resignation as a possibility, no one, it now appears, had ever prepared for the case.

Benedict has already changed one thing: the conclave that will elect his successor — which traditionally convenes 15 days after the end of a Pope’s reign — will now be able to start as soon as all the Cardinal electors arrive in Rome. That may mean an earlier start time than the previously expected March 15 — and almost certainly means a new Pope in time for the rituals of the church’s most sacred season, Holy Week, which begins on March 24, Palm Sunday. Benedict has also issued a harsher punishment for those who break the Conclave’s oath of secrecy (there have been many in the past, including from the session that saw Ratzinger’s election in 2005). The offender will now be excommunicated–even if he is a Cardinal.

On Tuesday, a few other post-Benedictine details were resolved: His official title will be Pope Emeritus. He will wear a simple white cassock. His red shoes will be replaced by comfortable brown loafers from Leon in Mexico. But others remain sticky: Will he be attending the rites officiated by his successor and, if so, in which capacity? And who would have precedence in such a ceremony? Such things may sound minor or procedural, but they carry a lot of weight in a world where the symbolic is always substantial.

For an institution like the Catholic Church, used to relying on tradition to find its course of action and where change is measured in centuries, the terra incognita of having two Popes, living a few hundred meters from each other within the Vatican walls, is something unprecedented, and thus truly frightening.

Additionally, the Holy See continues to counter the reports of scandal that have plagued the waning days of Benedict’s rule (including the resignation of Britain’s senior Cardinal on Monday in the wake of allegations of inappropriate behavior with young priests decades ago). The Vatican has accused the Italian press of trying to influence the election of the new Pontiff. The local media has been critical of the immense influence of the secretive Vatican bureaucracy, the Roman Curia, in administering the papal state, including its controversial finances.

(PHOTOS: The Path of Pope Benedict XVI)

But the Curia itself is uncertain about political dynamics of the post-Benedict era. Many in the bureaucracy are concerned that the retired Pope will cast a long shadow over his successor, and will exert — directly or not — some influence over his decisions. The Vatican chief spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, and the whole papal entourage have been reassuring ever since the announcement that Benedict will keep a very low profile, and that his “sensibility” will make sure that there is no interference with the new Pope. But suspicions deepened with the news, a few days after the announcement of his resignation, that Benedict’s private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, will continue to serve the new Pope as head of the Papal Household, setting his schedule and deciding who will have access to him while continuing to live in Mater Ecclesiae at the side of his old master.

The refurbishment of the Mater Ecclasiae convent — discreetly contracted last autumn by the Secretariat of State to a company outside the Vatican — is mostly aimed at making space for the ex-Pope’s extensive library. At the convent, Benedict will continue to live with the four consecrated women who served him in his apartment while he was Pope. According to the Italian daily La Stampa, he will receive a small stipend — around $3,300 per month, the pension usually granted to retired bishops — but he probably won’t have much use for it. The Vatican will continue to care for his needs out of its own budget.

Benedict told priests in Rome last week that he would live “hidden from the world.” The Vatican says he will devote his time to prayer and study. But what if he publishes books — like the encyclical on faith, reportedly almost finished but stuck in the clogs of Vatican bureaucracy? What if Cardinals and Catholics from the world over start visiting his retirement house as a place of pilgrimage? “He will keep his freedom” to write and move, Lombardi confirmed. “But we are dealing with an unprecedented situation, we’ll see how he will live it out.”

At least, Benedict shouldn’t fear the fate of his predecessor, Celestine V, a saint he admires: after resigning from the papacy in 1294, he was arrested by his successor, Boniface VIII, and ended his days in a jail.

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