Vatican City needs to work out details
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ROME -- Though it may have come as a shock Monday to the world's 1 billion-plus Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI's plan to retire on Feb. 28 appears to have been in the works for some time, and was known to a handful of close advisers.
Still unclear, however, are some of the practical consequences of Pope Benedict's decision, Vatican officials acknowledged Tuesday, from how the former pope will be addressed, to what to do with the papal ring used to seal important documents, traditionally destroyed upon a pope's death.
"There are a series of questions that remain to be seen, also on the part of the pope himself, even if it is a decision that he had made some time ago," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said at a news conference. "How he will live afterward, which will be very different from how he lives now, will require time and tranquility and reflection and a moment of adaptation to a new situation."
Even though the Code of Canon Law allows popes to resign, the occurrence was rare enough to have caught Vatican officials off guard, including on issues like the protocol and potentially awkward logistics of having a former pope and his successor share a backyard.
When he leaves the papacy at the end of the month, Pope Benedict, 85, will retire to his summer home in Castel Gandolfo, in the hills outside Rome, before moving to the Mater Ecclesiae convent, a plain, four-story structure built 21 years ago to serve as an international place "for contemplative life within the walls of Vatican City," as it is described on a Vatican website.
Workers began transforming the building into a residence in November, after the cloistered nuns who had occupied the convent left, Father Lombardi said. He did not tip his hand about whether the renovations were carried out with the pontiff as the future occupant in mind. "The pope knew this place, this building, and thought it was appropriate for his needs," he said.
The timing, however, raised suspicions that the pope had been planning the details of his retirement for some time. The editor of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, wrote Monday that the pope had made his decision "many months ago," after a demanding trip to Mexico and Cuba in March 2012, "and kept with a reserve that no one could violate."
Father Lombardi said the stress of that trip had further convinced the pope that he no longer had the stamina to do the job.
In fact, the pope had meditated on the possibility of resigning for years. In the 2010 book "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times," from a series of interviews conducted by Peter Seewald, a German journalist, Pope Benedict said that if a pope "clearly realized that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of carrying out the duties of his office," he would have "the right, and under some circumstances also an obligation, to resign."
Rumors of his imminent resignation began to appear periodically in the Italian news media in recent years, as the pope appeared increasingly frail in public appearances.
Vatican officials confirmed Tuesday that the pope was fitted with a pacemaker a decade ago and that three months ago he had a follow-up procedure to install new batteries. But officials said his heart condition did not contribute to his decision to resign because of a more general decline in health.
A Vatican official, who asked not to be named because he was discussing papal business, said that the number of people who had known about the pope's decision "a long time, could be counted on one hand." But the pope had informed a small group of other collaborators "in recent days."
When he retires to Vatican City, the pope will be able to move freely, Father Lombardi said, although it was "premature" to say how involved he will be in day-to-day activities -- like saying Mass -- at the Vatican.
He would not, however, intervene in the choice of his successor. "You can be sure that the cardinals will be autonomous in their decision and he will have no specific role in this election," Father Lombardi said, adding that the pope was "a very discreet person."
The conclave to choose the next pope will begin 15 to 20 days after the pope resigns, and a new leader of the Roman Catholic Church is expected to be in place by Easter, which falls on March 31 this year.
First Published February 13, 2013 12:00 am