In front of the Roman clergy, he spoke for one hour off-the-cuff, with no hesitation and with a certain serenity. And he denounced one of the “issues” with the Church, probably for him the pivotal one. Which is that there had been two Second Vatican Councils: one of the Fathers and one of the media. The latter deprived the Council of its content, used the Council’s key words to make the sacred profane, to maintain that ministers are not important and that laymen should democratically assume power. A political view of the Church, the virtual version of the Second Vatican Council, won the media. But now the real version is coming afloat, albeit with difficulty. Strength, tenacity, and a capacity of renewal are required. Benedict XVI doesn’t feel in himself that strength. So he resigned Peter’s ministerium.
Yet, Benedict XVI’s renunciation was not painful. Coherent with what he always said and wrote, the Pope trusted in God. His last actions as Pope – following an unchanged schedule – will be the Pope’s legacy to his successor. A legacy and path Benedict XVI already hinted at when he announced his renounce.
Monday, February, 11, the Madonna of Lourdes commemoration and a holyday at Vatican City State because of the anniversary of the Lateran Pacts. Cardinals in Rome gathered in a public ordinary consistory, with the aim to set a date for three canonizations. At the end of the Consistory, the Pope speaks in Latin, and declares that «with full freedom» and «well aware of the seriousness of this act» he renounces the ministry of Bishop of Rome entrusted to him 19 April 2005. Because, the Pope explains, «in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith», he feels that he lacks the strength of mind and body to carry on with his ministry.
Those words already set the profile for the next Pope. Part of Benedict’s legacy will be in every word he utters, every speech he will deliver until February 28 – when the Sede Vacante (Vacant See) will officially begin. It was clear in the meeting with the Roman clergy, on Thursday, February 14th. Priests of Rome asked the Pope to tell them about the Second Vatican Council. He suggested to “chat” with them, and spoke calmly. He remembered the enthusiasm of the Council, he traveled again through the Council’s main issues (liturgy, ecclesiology, revelation, ecumenism and religious freedom). He contrasted the «Virtual Second Vatican Council» with the «Real Vatican Council». «People – the Pope said – have heard about the Council according to the media, not the Council according to the Fathers. While the Council according to the Fathers was within the sphere of faith, the Council according to journalists was explained from a different perspective (i.e. not from faith), with a different hermeneutic: a political hermeneutic, a battle for power among the different parties. Surely, the media sided with those advocating for the Church’s decentralization, for more power for bishops and then – through the use of the word “People of God” – for power for laymen. This media’s Council – accessible to all – «created so many calamities and problems and miseries: closed seminaries, closed convents, trivialized religion. So the true Council had many difficulties in taking shape, to realize itself. The virtual Council was stronger than the real Council. But the real strength of the Council has been present, and step by step it becomes concrete and becomes the real strength.»
This program requires strength to be implemented. Benedict XVI’s program has been an ambitious one: returning the Church to God. How to do this, despite the poisonous influence of a Church (a Curia) suffering from the gangrene of careerism, against a Church perhaps excessively deferential to the media, with the risk of trivializing solemn occasions and liturgies? Like the Benedictines, the Pope wished to go beyond. He climbed high up, from where his thought could fly afar and reach everybody. As Saint Benedict from his cloister, Benedict XVI aimed at a new civilization, using his speeches as the building blocks of a Cathedral, moving attention away from gestures and actions and focusing instead on a deeper thought and theology, thus avoiding any trivialization.
The Pope explained and lived faith with reason, because faith is reasonable, alive and real — a fundamental and constant notion in Ratzinger’s theological work. The Curia, however, was still entangled in the long legacy of John Paul II’s era. A renovation program needs a lot of strength to be carried out. Benedict XVI felt he had established the foundations, and that – through his theology and work – he had built a solid framework of thought. Now, there is a need for someone able to revolutionize everything, to change a mentality. And Benedict XVI knows that this someone cannot be him, who lived in Wojtyla’s Curia, being a voice in opposition, maybe the only voice.
When did Benedict XVI took this decision? There was not a precise moment. Those who know the Pope well can see that he had set a goal line and made headway to reach it. The time to step down was not – as the Pope told Peter Seewald in the book/interview Light of the World – in the midst of the clergy child abuse scandal. Nor was it time to step down when the Year of Faith was to begin, as all of Benedict XVI’s pontificate had pointed toward the Year of Faith. The time to step down was not during the Vatileaks scandal. At the beginning of his Pontificate, the Pope prayed for the courage of not running away when faced by the wolves. He did not. Now was the right time to step down: everything had been put in order with his most recent decisions, which really seemed intended to bring his pontificate to a close.
While there was not a single event solely responsible for the decision, perhaps the Pope’s meeting Paolo Gabriele in jail, the day the butler was pardoned, represents a turning point. Paolo Gabriele is the unfaithful butler who was sentenced to one year and a half imprisonment for leaking the Pope’s personal papers. The photographs show a butler who looks like a daring head of state who had finally succeeded in meeting the Pontiff. The Pope, indeed, seemed a little astonished, probably because of the butler’s self assurance – Gabriele now works at the Vatican-affiliated Pediatric Hospital Bambino Gesù, far from Vatican walls. Many inside the Vatican – especially among those most loyal to the Pope – disliked that portrait: Paolo Gabriele facing imprisonment with self assurance, and then behaving presumptuously after his pardon and liberation. Benedict XVI was surely not indifferent to all of this. Was Paolo Gabriele, Vatileaks’ artifex, just a man unprepared to deal with an unexpected career jump, and who then attributed to himself the role of defender and savior of the Church? Or was he influenced by other «parties» made up of those who – during the sunset of John Paul II’s Pontificate – ruled everything and later ill-received Benedict XVI’s new course?
A Pope can also ponder about these issues. Several days before he pardoned Paolo Gabriele, the Pope met with the Cardinal Commission charged with investigating the leaks of documents. The three cardinals reportedly gave him a dossier with information from their interviews with Vatican staff, which made him realize the extent of the network working against his wishes to make the Church more transparent and pure.
Perhaps Benedict XVI had wished to stay through the conclusion of the Year of Faith. Vatileaks, in fact, changed everything. They wanted the Pope to get rid of Card. Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State, or at least of his personal secretary, Georg Gaenswein. Benedict XVI made an unprecedented choice: he stepped down, leaving both Bertone and Gaenswein at their posts. A powerful retaliation: Bertone is Chamberlain, and as such will remain at his post during the Sede Vacante and the conclave. And Gaenswein, recently appointed Prefect of the Pontifical Household and ordained archbishop, will keep his post as well, to manage everyday affairs. In fact, Chamberlain and Prefect are the only two posts that specifically retain their portfolios during the Sede Vacante. Moreover: Gaenswein – and this prove that he is very close to Ratzinger – will go on being Benedict XVI’s personal secretary, and eventually he may take over the management of the Ratzinger Foundation, established to perpetuate the memory of Benedict XVI’s thought and work.
Benedict XVI has wanted to avoid going through a long «end of the pontificate» period, as in John Paul II’s last ten years. During that period, many appointments were not Wojtyla’s, speeches were not Wojtyla’s, and the choices were not Wojtyla’s. During those ten years, a hard core of clerks, monsignors, and nuncios rose within the Curia, who later made Pope Benedict’s path more difficult.
Inside the Vatican, there are always the same faces, as portrayed by a wonderful picture in the last page of the Vatican daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, in its February 11th edition. Angelo Sodano, Bertone’s predecessor as Secretary of State, will not be in the conclave: too old. His faction is made up of many of the diplomats he formed, headed by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches. Sandri was among the very first people to be transferred to a new post under Benedict XVI. Many of the attacks against Bertone came from Sodano’s party, which will probably support the idea of a discontinuity with the current Pontificate, believing there is a need to have a Pope that is more focused on management than on faith.
Yet, the College of Cardinals is very Ratzingerian. In the five consistories he convoked, Benedict XVI created 90 cardinals (hailing from 37 different countries): 84 are still alive, 67 will be in the conclave, where a majority of 78 cardinals is needed to elect the new Pope. Ratzinger’s cardinals will constitute the hard core of a college willing to inherit and carry on Benedict XVI’s legacy. It will help that the Pope will live within the Vatican Walls, at the Mater Ecclesiae, formerly a seclusion convent. This choice gives a new pope the maximum level of discretion and the greatest possibility of access to his predecessor, allowing them to confidentially discuss the Church’s current affairs. (Maybe even to re-visit the dossiers which Ratzinger consulted when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – dossiers which were rumored to have been left behind in Ratzinger’s former apartment, in piazza della Città Leonina, where now Ludwing Mueller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and curator of Ratzinger’s opera omnia, lives.)
What will the next pope be like? One can hazard a guess, based on Benedict XVI’s most recent speeches: he will be a «young Pope» (60-70 years old), very close to the outgoing Pope, able to renovate and at the same time to lead the ship of Peter within the tradition. Card. Cristoph Schoenborn, Archbishop of Wien, would seem to be the most suitable choice, for his résumé. Schoenborn, with the counsel of Ratzinger – at the time Prefect of the former Sant’Uffizio – forcefully confronted clergy pedophilia scandals in Austria in the mid-Nineties, and is a dedicated pupil of Benedict XVI. But he has attracted some negative press coverage. Schoenberg was compelled to publicly apologize after he spoke critically about how Sodano, when he was Secretary of State, had managed the clergy sex abuse scandals. Schoenborn is perceived as unreliable in governance. Would he be agreeable to all?
This is a time when Cardinals’ profiles are under scrutiny. Under the spotlight are: Tagle, the young Filipino Cardinal; Ouellet, the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops; and Odilo Pedro Scherer, Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and member of the Institute for Religious Works (IOR) Cardinal Commission. It is a time when links are revealed. But what will become of all the knots tied toward a conclave that was not imminent, had it taken place after Benedict XVI’s death? What will be of the trusted relationship with Georg Gaenswein that many heralded or sought? Which of the fluctuating friendships will now be determining?
With his renunciation, Benedict XVI has profoundly shaken all of the above. He has done it with a logic that has its own theological terminology, “un-mundanizing”, which he used during his most recent trip to Germany. The Pope underlined that secular trends had been in some ways providential to the Church, because they made the Church less worldly. Un-mundanizing, i.e. separate and unify. Benedict XVI is the only sovereign able to separate himself from the things of the world, with the aim of reuniting the Church.
Benedict XVI choice is full of humility. The Pope personally assumed the question at the center of the general audience of Wednesday, February 13th. «What is the God’s place in my life? Is he the Lord, or is it me?» Benedict XVI then explained: «The option between the closure of our selfishness and the opening to the love of God and others» is «the option between the human power and the power of the cross, between a redemption seen in the only material wealth and a redemption as God’s endeavor». To convert – the Pope concluded – «means not to be close in the search of his own success, prestige and post, but to get that every day, in small things, truth, faith in God and love become the most important thing». This principle, Benedict XVI put into practice as Pope: conscious that the Church is Christ’s, he decided to renounce his ministry.
And in the evening, during the Ash Wednesday celebration, he asked if it was possible to turn back to God, and he said that turning back to God could concretize in our life only when the Grace of Lord penetrate in the inner of ourselves and shake this inner, giving us the strength to rip the heart apart. «In our own day – the Pope said – lots of people are ready to “rend their clothing” in the face of scandals and acts of injustice – the fault naturally of others – but few seem prepared to do something about their own “hearts”, their own consciences and their own intentions, allowing the Lord to transform, renew and convert them».
That homily was precious, in pure Ratzinger style. It recalled that freedom of thought and expression that Ratzinger embraced during the 2005 Sede Vacante and at the outset of his Pontificate. Later, the Pope adopted a more papal mode of speech, which somewhat lacked this special ability to shake the conscience.
Now professor Ratzinger is back, and Pope Benedict is leaving a precise legacy. Will the cardinals know how to carry it forward?