A day in the life of Pope Benedict
I accompanied Msgr Paolo De Nicolò, head of the protocol office, to the papal apartment; it was De Nicolò’s job to accompany the pontiff to his audiences. We arrived at the third-floor loggia, with frescos painted by disciples of Raphael in the early 16th century, and I waited outside, out of view.
The oak doors opened, and the pope stepped out. His German secretary, Msgr Georg Gaenswein, walked a couple of steps behind. The Swiss guard outside the door saluted; the pope smiled and greeted him in German. The doors closed, and pontiff, regent and secretary walked down the marble corridor towards the lift. The pope wore the magenta mozzetta, a shoulder-length cape used during private audiences.
I recalled the words of a nun I had met the previous day who was responsible for the pontifical robes. “This holy father is the best,” she had said approvingly. “He does exactly what he is told, and wears what I lay out for him. I was here when Blessed John XXIII was pope . . . He was so fussy . . . much more demanding than this man.”
In the Hall of St Peter and Paul, the pope greeted the US ambassador with hands outstreched. Cameras clicked, then entourage and photographers were ushered out, leaving the two to discuss the pope’s April 2008 visit to the United States.
At the end of the audience, the ambassador presented her family and staff to the pope. A short exchange of gifts followed before the end of the audience.
The whole encounter, which took less than half an hour, was noticeably relaxed, with a lot of laughter. As he returned to the library, the pope was given a small glass of tea.
The pope then continued to the adjacent Sala Clementina, where more than 100 members of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum – One Heart – waited for him. After a brief address by Cardinal Paul Cordes, the pope read a short speech in English, and met most of the participants, before posing for a group photograph.
Afterwards, the pope returned to his apartment for his frugal Lenten meal. In the afternoon, he took a walk in the Vatican Gardens. Shortly after 4pm, a black Mercedes pulled up at the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. The pope opened the right rear door and stepped out, wearing a white quilted parka jacket, brown casual shoes and flat cream cap.
The pope and Georg Gaenswein entered the grotto and knelt for a few moments. After a while secretary and pope walked up and down briskly in the sunny but cold day. This was the only time in the day he was not surrounded by people, and even then he was in company.
Little could I think five years ago that this sprightly octogenarian would take the startling decision to abdicate the papacy and spend his sunset years on the hill overlooking St Peter’s tomb.
Fr Michael Collins serves in St Mary’s Parish, Haddington Road, Dublin. He is the author of Vatican: Secrets and Treasures of the Holy City (Dorling Kindersley, 2008)