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Thursday, February 28, 2013


Pope Benedict XVI will become the first pontiff in 600 years to abdicate when he’s airlifted out of the Vatican today, as cardinals set to elect his successor assess the impact of a secret dossier on church intrigue.

The pope, 85, will cease being leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics at 8 p.m. Rome time after being flown by helicopter to the papal summer residence south of the Italian capital in Castel Gandolfo. Swiss guards who’ve protected him since his election in 2004 will abandon their station at the doors of the 17th-century villa, leaving the task to Vatican gendarmes.

“After that hour, there will be no pope,” said Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, in an e-mailed comment to subscribers. “The see of Peter will be vacant.”

Benedict’s abdication, the first since Pope Gregory XII in 1415, comes as the Roman Catholic church grapples with a wave of controversy including clerical sex abuse and the leaking of papal documents. It also ends the career of Joseph Ratzinger, who rose to become Catholicism’s doctrinal watchdog and then Roman pontiff after growing up in Nazi Germany.

The pope will today greet cardinals who’ve come to Rome to mark his historic retirement and elect his successor. He’ll be seen off just before 5 p.m. by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s second-in-command, before boarding the helicopter for a 15-minute flight to Castel Gandolfo, according to spokesman Federico Lombardi. At the summer palace, he’ll briefly salute pilgrims from a window in his last public act as pope.

Preparing Conclave

Prior to the conclave to elect a new pontiff, cardinals will hold preliminary talks to discuss its timing and other issues, probably starting on March 4, according to Lombardi. The talks will involve about 100 cardinals who exceed the voting-age limit of 80 as well as the 115 who are set to join the secret gathering in the Sistine Chapel later next month.

Benedict’s papacy, which began after he spent a quarter- century as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, was marked by upheaval. At the outset of his almost eight-year reign, the church was accused of doing too little to punish pedophile priests and covering up evidence of abuse from the U.S. and Ireland to his native Germany.

A theologian by training, the former professor initially lagged in his response. After a period of silence, he oversaw the publishing of the first Vatican guidelines for dealing with clerics accused of abusing children. He also began to speak out publicly against what he called the “cloud of filth” that had soiled the church.

‘Evil, Corruption’

Still, the 85-year-old struggled to tame intrigue during his final year in power. His butler stole his personal papers and handed them to an Italian reporter, who published a book portraying Benedict as being undermined by Bertone in a swirl of palace intrigue.

Gabriele indicated he’d leaked the documents to protect the pope and expose “evil and corruption” inside the Vatican. Benedict pardoned him last month after he’d been sentenced to 18 months in a Vatican jail for theft.

The pontiff ordered a probe into “Vatileaks,” as the case is called. This week, he met with the three cardinals who spearheaded the investigation: Julian Herranz, Jozef Tomko and Salvatore De Giorgi. They handed their 300-page dossier on the case to the pope in December.

While the pope said he lacked the strength to lead the church when he announced his intention to resign on Feb. 11, Italian magazine Panorama and La Repubblica newspaper reported last week that he had decided to step down after receiving the secret file. It detailed a Vatican network of sex and graft that made some prelates vulnerable to blackmail, the press reports said, citing unidentified people close to the investigation.

Vatican Rebuke

In a rare public rebuke, the Vatican lashed out at the media last weekend, accusing journalists of “widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories” that amounted to an attempt “to exert pressure” on the cardinals who will gather for the conclave.

Still, after the pope met with the dossier’s authors on Feb. 25, the Vatican said in a statement their probe was able to identify “those who work with uprightness and generosity in the Holy See.” While the document will remain secret before being handed to the future pope, its authors may discuss it with other cardinals during pre-conclave talks, Lombardi said.

“The people responsible for it, including the three cardinals who were members of the investigation team, will know to what extent they may and must give useful information to those who ask for it in order to evaluate the situation and choose a new pope,” the spokesman told reporters at a Vatican briefing on Feb. 25.

Christ’s Life

A bookish scholar, Benedict spent years penning by hand his philosophical take on life of Jesus Christ in a three-volume book. He opposed “moral relativism,” the idea that truth is malleable and can be adjusted to lifestyles, and considered it his mission to resist changes sweeping modern society.

Speculation that the pope has struggled to tame intrigue has been fueled by his own words. He used a Feb. 13 sermon to speak out about the church’s “sometimes disfigured face” and a Feb. 23 message to the Curia to lament the “evil, suffering and corruption” that has defaced the centuries-old institution.
He’ll return to a Vatican convent in two months to live out his days in prayer with the title “pope emeritus,” according to Lombardi. “He’s going to imitate Christ” and teach “the whole church, and the world as well, by his decision to resign and devote himself to prayer,” Moynihan said in an e-mailed comment on Feb. 24.

Yesterday, in his last address in front of 150,000 people in St. Peter’s Square, Benedict reminisced, saying he had seen moments of “joy and light” during his papacy as well as times when “it seemed like the Lord was sleeping.” The faithful must be joyous in living a life that’s “coherent” with their beliefs, the pope said.

The reporter on this story: Jeffrey Donovan

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