A day in the life of Pope Benedict


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.

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)

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