A strange silence in Rome as 'game changer' announcement sinks in
A policeman holds the Osservatore Romano newspaper in Rome the day after the pope announced he was to step down on February 28th. The Vatican expects a new pope to be chosen by the end of March. photograph: giampiero sposito/reuters
There was an odd quiet about St Peter’s Square yesterday. A sort of calm after the storm, before the storm. Life as usual. It rained, the fountains hissed and impatient schoolchildren complained about security queues as they headed to St Peter’s Basilica.
And all around the splendid colonnade, half newly cleaned, half to be cleaned. A lot done, more to do. Indeed, part of the colonnade near the Sistine chapel and papal apartments is shrouded in dust cloths. That will have to go before the conclave next month.
It was a Vatican official who probably summed up the mood best yesterday. There was, he said, “a dawning that we were going from the notional to real knowledge”.
In other words, Monday’s shock announcement that Pope Benedict is to resign is beginning to sink in.
This official, who did not wish to be named, felt the announcement was “a fundamental game changer”. It had “opened the door where renouncement [of the papacy] is concerned, which had not been opened before”.
And no, there was no annoyance that they all had been landed in it, so to speak, without any warning at all. And they were.
As he explained it, “Monday was a bank holiday in the Vatican”, held to mark the anniversary of the 1929 Lateran Treaty which set up the Vatican City State. It was also the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and World Day of the Sick. The Vatican “was closed”.
There was no annoyance that Pope Benedict chose that day to unleash such momentous news and disarray. What there was “was amusement”, he said. “This was him at his best. He was never a man of the machine. This is great. Only he could do it.”
There was, the official added, warmly, emotionally, “a saintliness about the man. He is shy and retiring and there is something extraordinarily generous about him. In these days of spin, there was no spinning.”
He recalled the simplicity of Benedict’s lifestyle, even before he became pope. “He was living with his sister and you’d see her buying them pizzas at a van.”
The official felt Benedict’s decision to stand down was “a remarkably generous step, a ‘not about me’ step, by someone recognising and maybe accepting his own incapacity to deliver what he wanted.”
He was also certain that the pope “thrashed it out in prayer . . . his use of the word conscience . . . above all, it would appear to be something he had talked through with the Lord.”
The official felt that Benedict’s “real legacy will be historic. He was a man of very clear ideas. Very secure in his own mind, therefore he was able to dialogue with difference, so he had Hans Küng along, and he debated with atheists.”
Benedict “trusted the power of reason, debate and logic”. Which was why, the official felt, the pope would be remembered in particular for outstanding addresses such as those delivered to the German parliament and at Westminster Hall in London.
As for “where to from here?”, the official was more bemused than amused.
“People in the Vatican are in planning mode, without times, dates etc,” he said. Normally, in such seeming times of crisis they would “see how it was done the last time. “ But there was no ‘last time’, well, not for almost 600 years, 719 if you insist on a previous voluntary resignation.
“How do you deal symbolically with a former pope?” the official wondered.
He will find out next month.