Pope's decision may have come after fall
On the day after one of the most dramatic moments in all church history, Curia cardinals and the Catholic faithful alike were still trying to absorb the full implications of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation.
In a year, 2012, when the Vatican made international headlines because of a series of embarrassing leaks, most of them straight from the pope’s own study in the Apostolic Palace, Benedict’s resignation appears to have been one secret that was brilliantly well kept.
Different media sources, including most authoritatively the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, remain convinced that Benedict made his original decision that he would resign shortly after his visit to Mexico and Cuba in March of last year.
Apart from the obvious issue of simply getting older and thus finding it ever more difficult to travel, Benedict seems to have been influenced by a hitherto, unpublicised night-time fall experienced during the trip.
This was similar to a fall in which he broke his wrist during his 2009 summer break in Val d’Aosta.
Some time after his return from Cuba, Benedict is believed to have informed just two people, arguably his two closest aides, secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and his private secretary, the German Msgr Georg Gaenswein, of his decision to resign.
The dean of the College of Cardinals, former secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano, was reportedly informed only much later, probably last Friday when he had an audience with the pope.
What is clear is that this was one state secret which did not end up on the front pages; rather it was jealously guarded.
By this stage we have all become familiar with the tell-tale little signs that might have indicated the pope’s line of thinking, such as his interview with German Peter Seewald in 2010 (in which he discussed resignation) and the fact that he “topped up” the College of Cardinals with a most unusual second conclave last October.
Another indication concerns his household since not only did he elevate Mgr Gaenswein to bishop last autumn but he also nominated several staff figures to the order of San Gregorio Magno. He did this just two weeks ago.
While Vatican senior spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi continued to stress that the pope’s decision was prompted by a general and totally normal ageing process, this did not stop commentators attempting to discover some more serious health problem.
Writing in Rome newspaper La Repubblica, experienced journalist Guilio Anselmi said that while no one knew of his intention to resign on Monday, “everyone knew that Benedict was not well”.
Another Rome newspaper, Il Messaggero, pointed out that the pope had bad arthritis and high blood pressure.
The financial journal Il Sole 24 Ore reported that, unknown to the general public, he had had a minor heart operation late last autumn.
That same heart operation generated a deal of attention at yesterday’s Vatican briefing, with spokesman Fr Lombardi at pains to point out that it had been only a routine affair at which the battery on Benedict’s pacemaker (installed long before he became pope) had been changed.
While the arguments about Benedict’s health are of limited relevance at this point, the implications of his resignation remain huge.
Some commentators praised Benedict’s willingness to admit his human frailty in a modern world where people are afraid to admit to ageing.
Religious affairs writer Vito Mancuso called the resignation a temporal and not a spiritual gesture.
He said it was one which could change the whole nature of the papacy, introducing a much more collegiate concept of the papacy that goes right back to the days of the first pope, Peter.
Writing in Il Fatto Quotidiano, Marco Politi, someone who has often been critical of Benedict, argued that this resignation represented the most radical reform of his entire eight-year pontificate.
New age limit
He said that in an institution where there is an age cap on cardinals, archbishops and bishops (75), Benedict has introduced a new age limit – namely the job of pope is no longer for life.
Politi also recalls that in 1995 the ailing John Paul II had commissioned a secret church inquiry into how the church would react to having two popes, one retired and one on the Seat of Peter.
The answer was that neither the clergy nor the faithful were ready for such an eventuality.
It looks as if we are about to see if they are ready now.