On the stroke of 8pm last week on Thursday, as bells chimed and pilgrims stifled sobs, the Swiss guards who had been standing outside the apostolic palace of Castel Gandolfo retreated inside, their duty done. The man they had come to protect, three hours before, was no longer eligible for their care. In spectacular style through cloudless skies, he had arrived a pope, but was now, in his own words, “simply a pilgrim.”
Benedict XVI, the conservative whose most revolutionary act in eight years of papacy was arguably the way in which he left it, was now the emeritus pope, as fallible as any other. With no funeral and no mourning, the Holy See had become sede vacante.
In his final appearance as head of the Roman Catholic church, the 264th successor of St Peter greeted crowds of locals and pilgrims in the small hilltop town where popes have been coming to spend their summers for 400 years. He had left the Vatican City at 5pm, walking with a cane and bringing tears to the eyes of his entourage. Thirty minutes later, after a helicopter ride swept him over the finest sights of Rome, he emerged on the balcony of Castel Gandolfo’s apostolic palace to a roar from the people who had been waiting for him for hours.
“Dear friends,” he began, to huge cries and applause. “You know this day is different for me than the preceding ones: I am no longer the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, or I will be until 8 o’clock this evening and then no more.”
“I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth, but I would still ... with my heart, with my love, with my prayers, with my reflection and with all my inner strength, like to work for the common good and the good of the church and of humanity. I feel very supported by your sympathy. Let us go forward with the Lord for the good of the church and the world,” he said.
His last public words as pope were: “Thank you and goodnight. Thank you to all of you.”
The message was brief, barely two minutes long, but it was enough for those assembled. Schoolteacher Francesca Pagliarini was left dabbing away tears.
“What he said was particularly moving,” she said. “He said we were all brothers.”
All around her, crammed into the small piazza, nuns sang, pilgrims prayed and a five-year-old Italian boy gave out sporadic cries of “Long live the pope.”
Hanging out of windows and gathering on balconies, the townspeople watched to catch a glimpse of history in the making. As the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano wrote, this was a “new way.”
For the first time, a papacy was ending “quietly, without the drama of the bishop of Rome’s death,” it said.
Earlier in the day, in his last official engagement in the Vatican, Benedict XVI had unexpectedly addressed 144 cardinals of the church in the Clementine Hall of the apostolic palace. Sitting on a throne in a crimson velvet cape, he gave them — and the wider world — a clear message: that they should unite behind his successor.
“Among you is the future pope, to whom I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience,” he said, looking up from prepared notes.
The subtext of the address said that those worrying about divided loyalties in the future Vatican of “two popes” should stop. However, doubts remain. Benedict XVI will continue to wear white, the traditional color of popes, and will retain the style of His Holiness Benedict XVI. After two months spent in the papal villas at Castel Gandolfo, he will return to the Vatican and move into a former convent that is being restored for him. He has said he is “withdrawing into prayer” and may remain “hidden from the world.”
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.”
Adjoining Cagnole’s store is a shop selling pots of honey made on pontifical villas’ own farm.
As he left the Vatican, Benedict XVI was bade an emotional farewell by his Swiss guards and aides, some of whom had tears in their eyes. Bells rang out from St Peter’s Basilica and churches all over the city.
He was then whisked away in an Italian Air Force helicopter through the skies above Rome — a dramatic journey that took him over the Colosseum, the Roman forum and the lush countryside beyond.
Banners reading “thank you” were held up for him to see. Just before his departure, his Twitter handle posted a message thanking believers for their “love and support” and wishing them the joy of faith. The ID was now “in abeyance” for the next pope, the Vatican said.
Just who that will be is now the only guessing game in town.