For the cardinals amassed in the palace, who lined up one by one to share a personal moment with Benedict XVI and kiss his fisherman’s ring, there was another clear line of thought in the valedictory speech:
“May the college of cardinals work like an orchestra, where diversity — an expression of the universal church — always works toward a higher and harmonious agreement,” the outgoing pontiff said pointedly.
It was not the first time the 85-year-old had alluded to divisions within the church since his announcement two weeks ago of the first papal abdication in nearly 600 years. In an emotional Ash Wednesday Mass in St Peter’s Basilica, he had hit out at “individualism and rivalry,” and divisions which he said “disfigured” the face of the church.
However, for the cardinals in the Vatican on Thursday the implication was particularly clear: As a conclave to choose the 266th pope approaches, some have already been accused of secret maneuvering and dividing into factions in order to propel their favored candidate forward.
In addition, although the Vatican has insisted that Benedict XVI chose to leave purely for reasons of advancing age and declining strength, many observers believe that the frictions and infighting within the church, in particular among the Roman curia, played their part in his longing to leave.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the former Vatican secretary of state who thanked the German pontiff on Thursday “for the example you have set in these eight years of papacy,” has a well-known rival in the form of his successor, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
There is no date set yet for conclave, but it could begin as early as this week.
In the pontifical villas of Castel Gandolfo, the Bavarian theologian will finally be able to escape the friction and factionalism that, along with the clerical sex abuse scandal, dogged his papacy.
The town, situated about 24km southeast of Rome and overlooking Lake Albano, has been used to hosting popes for centuries; Pope John Paul II liked it so much he built a swimming pool there. Yet this is the first time the apostolic palace has accommodated an ex-pope and the community is keen to welcome Joseph Ratzinger, albeit with a tinge of sadness and regret.
“Let’s say that we are in the process of reappraising the figure of the pope,” said Veronica Radoi, a 30-year-old restaurant employee. “We have faith in him even if he has placed a big question mark over the faith in the church. A very big question mark ... but I can see that he is tired. We hope he’ll find peace here.”
As in the wider Catholic world, Benedict’s decision to stand down left many Castel Gandolfo residents stunned and unhappy. The feeling was perhaps particularly keen because of the town’s close ties to the papacy.
“To begin with the news was very saddening,” said Elia Cagnole, an assistant in a souvenir shop selling Benedict XVI postcards, plates, candles and coasters. “But now I see he is serene. It’s what he wants. It’s his choice, after all ... We’re very fond of him here.”