When the Swiss Guards–in their plumed helmets and distinctive, striped uniforms–closed the large doors at Castel Gandolfo, the papal retreat south of Rome, it signaled the official end of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy. It was 8 pm, Rome time, and the guards also took their leave of duty.
Benedict had retreated from public life three hours earlier, with a poignant message to thousands gathered in the courtyard of Castel Gandolfo. “I am no longer the Pope,” he told the masses from a balcony window, “but I am still with the Church. I am a pilgrim beginning the final journey of my life.”
The 85-year old pontiff had announced his resignation on February 11th, telling a group of Cardinals that his strength of body and mind had diminished to such a degree that he could no longer be an effective leader. Many have called Benedict one of the smartest popes to ever serve the Church in its 2,000 year history.
In the two weeks since the announcement, Italian newspapers have been filled with reports that Benedict received a 300-page dossier, back in December, from three Cardinals who’d conducted an internal investigation of the Vatican hierarchy. According to the reports, a network of gay prelates were being blackmailed for their interactions with “worldly connections.” The Vatican denounced one report a day later, claiming it contained many falsehoods.
Benedict’s signet ring–symbolizing the fisherman–a nod to the first pope, St. Peter–will be smashed with a tiny, silver hammer, so no other person could ever use it for official business. Benedict, a former university professor–and the author of dozens of books–hopes to retire to a life of reading, prayer, and reflection. He will be called Pope Emeritus and return to the Vatican in two months, to live in a former monastery that’s being renovated as his retirement home.
Friday morning, the College of Cardinals begins the business of deciding on a formal date for the secret conclave that will elect the 266th Pope.