A day in the life of Pope Benedict
Meet and greet: Pope Benedict with cardinals and bishops in the Sala Clementina. photographs: claudio peri/afp/getty and franco origlia/getty
Pope Benedict praying at the Lourdes grotto. photographs: claudio peri/afp/getty and franco origlia/getty
Putting together a book about the Vatican offered a chance to see how the pontiff lives, beginning with 7am Mass and ending with prayers in the grounds
It was 7am on the last day of February 2008, and the cold seeped through my shoes as I stood in a greenhouse in the Vatican Gardens, wondering why Italians like to get up so early. I was waiting for Paolo Ferrara, the Vatican’s head gardener, as part of a series of interviews for a book.
The mainly photographic volume would give accounts of a typical day in the life of a number of people in the Vatican: a choir boy from the Sistine Chapel, a curator in the papal sacristy, a cardinal, a Swiss guard, an art restorer, a nun and so on. I had also gained permission to follow Pope Benedict for a day. I could not enter the private apartments, but I would witness most activities.
Paolo greeted me with an enthusiastic handshake, offering coffee from a flask. I asked if he saw much of the pope. “I bring the holy father a floral arrangement for his desk in the Apostolic Palace once or twice a week, depending on the season. I go up around 9am. I knock and go in; he is usually sitting at his desk by then. He stands up and comes over to see what arrangement I have done. He loves flowers and always pays a compliment.” He added: “Pope John Paul never even noticed flowers.”
The Apostolic Palace, built by Domenico Fontana in the 16th century, has been the residence of the popes since 1871. Pope Benedict and his staff occupy several rooms on the uppermost floor.
The apartment opens on three sides of an interior courtyard. The pope’s reception room, his study and his bedroom face St Peter’s Square. The dining room, chapel and parlour open on to the internal courtyard of St Sixtus.
Four women take care of the papal apartment, including cooking. The women’s rooms overlook the Vatican Museums. The secretaries’ accommodation and guest rooms are tucked away in a converted attic. The pope and his assistants can stroll along the roof on an open-air planted walkway designed in the 1970s.
Pope Benedict’s daily routine followed a pattern. He rose each morning shortly after 6am and celebrated Mass an hour later. He breakfasted with his two priest secretaries at 7.45am and was normally at his desk by 8am. An hour later, one of the secretaries brought him documents and briefed him on current affairs.
Private audiences, usually with bishops or occasionally with political figures, took place on Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, from 11am until lunchtime.
Tuesday was generally the pope’s day off, although Benedict rarely left the Vatican. Wednesday morning was reserved for the general audience, a ticketed event that allowed the faithful to pray with and be blessed by the pope. Lunch was served at 1.30pm. In contrast with his predecessor, Benedict rarely invited guests.
After a short siesta there was generally time for reading, followed by a visit to the Vatican Gardens. At 5pm another round of appointments began, usually with senior curial cardinals.
The working day concluded at 8pm with dinner. Relaxation for Benedict consisted of playing the piano or watching television.
Permission to attend
On Friday, February 29th, 2008, the pope had two morning audiences. I was given permission to attend with officials from the papal household. The first audience was with Mary Ann Glendon, the new US ambassador to the holy see. The second was with participants of the Pontifical Council, which oversees the charitable bodies of the Catholic Church.