© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pope Benedict XVI becomes emeritus

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 28, 2013 - Today at 10:07 a.m. St. Louis time, a helicopter bearing Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th pope, lifted off from the Vatican Gardens to fly 15 miles southeast to Castel Gandolfo on the shores of Lake Albano. The estate with beautiful formal gardens usually serves as the papal summer home because it is cooler, well, slightly cooler than Rome.

There at least until May, under the name of “His Holiness, Benedict XVI the Pope Emeritus,” he is expected to continue a life of prayer and writing. But Wednesday he said that his will not be a “life of privacy.”

In six weeks, he will mark his 86th birthday. Later, in May, assuming the permission of the man who is elected to succeed him, he will return to the high security of the Vatican and live in a former convent in its gardens. 

Technically, the pope emeritus needs permission of the new pope to move into the former convent in Vatican Garden grounds. Small chance he’d be denied. Certainly he won’t get the treatment meted out to a previous pope who resigned: Pope Celestine V. Pope Boniface VIII threw Celestine into jail, where he died. Dante put them both in his fictional Inferno.

The transition begins

Church bells will ring for about eight minutes around 1 p.m. St. Louis time Thursday here and around the world to officially mark the end of his tenure. Catholic churches in St. Louis have prayed publicly for him from the sanctuaries daily since the announcement.

At 8 p.m. Rome time, the transition, interregnum, officially termed the sede vacante (vacant seat), begins in accord with church canon law. Benedict himself simplified transition rules a bit in 2007. He tweaked them again this week giving the cardinals the right to set a date to begin the conclave, the locked sessions in the Sistine Chapel. There cardinals, seated facing Michelangelo’s large fresco "The Last Judgment," will vote for his successor.The moment his resignation becomes official Thursday evening, the cardinal-electors become the leaders of the church but with limited powers. Most of the 115 cardinals who are under 80 are in Rome for Thursday’s final meeting with Benedict.

Monday, cardinals will gather for a general conference. Its first bit of business will be to determine when the conclave will begin. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the St. Louis native who is New York archbishop, and Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, both said they want 14 days to pass between Thursday and the opening of the conclave so they can better get to know the other cardinals.

'Novelty ... not privacy'

Wednesday Benedict clarified his reasons for retiring and his vision of his future mission, one that won’t give the scholar his privacy back, he said.

At his weekly, and final, public audience he mostly spoke about the church but at the end he explained why he was retiring. He stressed he knew it was a “novelty.”

“I felt that my strength had decreased, and I asked God with insistence in prayer to enlighten me with His light to make me take the right decision – not for my sake, but for the good of the Church,” he told the vast crowds. “I have taken this step in full awareness of its severity and also its novelty, but with a deep peace of mind.

“Loving the Church also means having the courage to make difficult, trying choices, having ever before oneself the good of the Church and not one’s own.”

He thanked the cardinals, Vatican officials, and government heads of state and ordinary people who had sent him good wishes in recent days. He said that many who wrote him didn’t address him as they might a public official but more like a brother.

He frankly referred to "storms" he encountered on the job and said sometimes he felt like St. Peter did when he was fishing on the Sea of Galilee and his passenger Jesus was asleep.

“A pope is never alone," he said. Once elected pope there is no privacy, the theologian-pope explained to the crowd.

“There is no returning to private life. My decision to forgo the exercise of active ministry does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on.”

Instead, he expects to follow the example of prayer and work set by St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order of monks whose name Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took when he became pope.

“I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the crucified Lord. I no longer wield the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, within St. Peter’s bounds. St. Benedict, whose name I bear as pope, shall be a great example in this for me. He showed us the way to a life which, active or passive, belongs wholly to the work of God.”

Seal smashed, rooms sealed

Shortly after the ringing bells mark the end of his tenure, Benedict's papal seal ring, the so-called ring of the fisherman (which has a raised image of St. Peter engraved with Benedict XVI on it) will be broken, as will his personal seal. It’s an ancient tradition to prevent either from being used to stamp a wax seal to forged documents. Thursday night the camerlengo or papal chamberlain Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone is charged with locking and sealing the papal apartments high above St. Peter’s Square.

All but three of the Vatican department and court heads lose their jobs during the transition.

In 2007, Benedict changed canon law so the camerlengo or chamberlain who does the work of the cardinals and sets up the conclave is the man who had been serving as the Vatican secretary of state. The other two Vatican officials who do not lose their Vatican posts are the vicar of the diocese of Rome, Cardinal Agostino Vallini, who retains all powers to provide pastoral care that other diocese’s bishops have and the major penitentiary who oversees the Holy See’s confessional matters, Cardinal Manuel Monteiro de Castro. 

While Vatican department and court leaders lose their jobs at 8 p.m. Rome time, the under-secretaries who manage the departments’ day-to-day operations continue to work. However, any decisions they make are provisional until the new pope confirms them.

Basically no serious appointments can be made until the election. Rules about voting for the next pope cannot be changed. No controversial decisions can be enacted. In the 16 days since Benedict’s announcement, a good deal of stalled minor decisions have been “dusted off” to clear desks in many Vatican departments, a Vatican source said Monday.

Among those losing their jobs Thursday night are three of the 11 American Cardinals who are not archdiocesan bishops but work in the Vatican. They include Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, until Thursday evening the prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, and former St. Louis archbishop and Cardinals James Harvey and Edwin O’Brien. The next pope can replace all of them, but in many cases popes at least temporarily put department heads back in office.

Conclave plans

Cardinal Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, will lead the meeting Monday to decide when the conclave will begin. In his post as dean of the college, he also is supposed to preside over the conclave, but he is too old to attend, said Jesuit priest Thomas Reese of Georgetown, who also noted that his sub-dean is also over 80.

“This leaves it to Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the most senior member of the college of cardinals to do the work of the dean (inside) the conclave,” Reese said.

Sixty-seven of the voting cardinals were appointed by Pope Benedict, the rest by John Paul II, Reese said. Their average age is 72. More than half are from Europe; and of those, 24 percent from Italy. About a third of the cardinals are from the developing world. The U.S. gets 11 electors. About 35 percent of the cardinals work in Rome, Reese said.

St. Louisans can claim three, some would say four.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan was born in St. Louis, moved to Ballwin in time for grade school at Holy Infant and was ordained a priest and a bishop in the St. Louis Cathedral. He would object to being called a former St. Louisan since he flies in for wakes, funerals, weddings, and other important occasions. You might even catch him shopping at Schnucks for his sister-in-law.

Both Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia, and Cardinal Raymond Burke are former St. Louis archbishops. The Belleville Diocese has a strong claim on Cardinal Francis George, the Chicago archbishop. He went to high school at its diocesan prep boarding seminary, the long-closed St. Henry’s and has first cousins in the region.

St. Louis reaction

Most St. Louisans are taking the transition in stride. Last Friday despite snow, most archdiocesan priests, scores of religious sisters, nuns and brothers and many lay persons crowded into the St. Louis Cathedral, to participate in a Mass that Archbishop Robert Carlson offered in thanksgiving for Benedict’s years of service. Parish churches in St. Louis, Belleville and Springfield dioceses have prayed publicly for Benedict daily since his retirement announcement. 

“There is no panic. People understand what is going on,” said Monsignor Michael Witt, who teaches church history at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary and is pastor of All Saints Church in University City. “Most of them (St. Louis Catholics) have seen ‘The Shoes of the Fisherman.’ It’s a movie that shows the transition. Of course, things have changed since it was made in the 1970s.”

Witt cited today’s need for added security so that no cell phones, no internet, no satellite phones or television can reach inside the Sistine Chapel or the Domus Santa Marta, a five-story, 1990s hotel-like building near St. Peter’s where the cardinals will sleep and eat.

“Seminarians are fascinated to learn more about cardinals, even talking about them at lunch,” Witt said. They’ve begun posting photos of various cardinals on a school bulletin board.

His University City parishioners at All Saints are so interested that one week ago Witt began putting profiles of various cardinals in his parish’s Sunday bulletin starting with one from Columbia and one from Sri Lanka.

“Many have not been cardinals that long and aren’t well known here,” Witt said. His parishioners have found “these cardinals are such well-educated, talented men who speak many languages. It really helps for our parishioners to know that they are really quality, world-class, able men.”

Read more

Benedict completes his tenure as pope. | Radio Canada

Cardinal Dolan bids pope farewell. | New York Times

Benedict pledges allegiance to next pope. | Voice of America

Without a pope, who is running the church? | NBC News

Attention now turns to who the next pope will be. | ABC News

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.