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We have all now grown used to the idea of the Pope’s abdication: the reality will be harder to take in. It remains a great sorrow to have to live through

This has been a very great pontificate: we now need a vigorous pope who will defeat the treacherous bureaucrats who undermined Pope Benedict

By on Thursday, 28 February 2013

Benedict XVI, who leaves office today

Benedict XVI, who leaves office today

Last week, in the midst of an online controversy over what the former pope would be called once he had stepped down (most people saying that he would simply be some variant of Joseph Ratzinger, perhaps with the addition of the title Cardinal or Archbishop), I wrote that there was “no way the present Holy Father can ever cease to be Benedict XVI. His pontificate is a historical fact: and he will still embody it.” Well, though several of my correspondents pooh-poohed that, saying, no way, it would just be “back to Ratzinger” as one atheist troll amiably put it, it has now been announced.

that he will indeed continue to be known as Pope Benedict XVI; he will be addressed as “your Holiness,” and his title will be either “pope emeritus” or “Roman pontiff emeritus” (so much for JPII’s little joke). Father Lombardi said that the decisions about how the pope would be addressed and what he would wear were made in consultation with the Pope himself and with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, acting as camerlengo, along with others (who?). Pope Benedict also will give his “fisherman’s ring” and seal to be broken (one of the camerlengo’s duties), as is usually done on the death of a pope. The pope will go back to wearing the episcopal ring he wore as a cardinal. After tonight, he will continue to wear a white cassock, but without the mozzetta, the white shoulder cape which indicates papal rank. He will no longer wear red shoes or slippers (also a sign of papal rank); instead, he will wear brown shoes, beginning with the loafers he was given as a gift last March during a visit to Leon in Mexico. Fr Lombardi said the pope has found the zapatos to be very comfortable (I bet, after that, that a spare pair or two are already on their way). At 7 p.m. GMT this evening Father Lombardi said, the Swiss Guards stationed at the main doors of the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo (where he will stay until after the conclave) will withdraw and close the doors. The Vatican gendarmes will take over pope Benedict’s protection. And that will be that.

This has been a very great pope; and part of his greatness has been his unique combination of great intellect with a very real and visible fatherly tenderness for all his people. Intellect and love, reason and faith; his has been a genius unique in its power to bring together means of perception and understanding which are often thought to operate in quite distinct ways, even to be incompatible. In many of his addresses, writes Professor Tracey Rowland, in a brilliant assessment of his pontificate, “Benedict … emphasised that love and reason are the twin pillars of all reality. The relationships between love-and-reason and faith-and-reason were themes to which he often returned. One sensed that he was trying to reconcile the Thomist and Franciscan traditions in a higher synthesis: rather than a system which gives a typically Thomist priority to truth, or one which gives a typically Bonaventurian priority to love, he insisted that love and reason are equally foundationally significant – hence the image of ‘twin pillars’.”

“The challenge in choosing Benedict’s successor”, Tracey Rowland says, “will be to find someone who has the strength and ability to deal with the administrative side of the office of the papacy while retaining at least some of the intellectual flair and imagination of Benedict and his predecessor.” It is clear that the Vatican’s complex and often devious, even treacherous bureaucracy is a major part of what has defeated him. “Given the successive waves of intellectual combat Pope Benedict XVI has endured in the service of the Church he loves”, Tracey Rowland says, “a future pope may well declare Benedict XVI a ‘Doctor of the Church’. And she tartly concludes “Were that to happen, I think he should also be honoured as the patron saint of people everywhere who are oppressed by bureaucracy – especially bureaucracies run by philistines.”

All that is behind him now. He leaves a great void, which even a new pope will, certainly at first, only partly fill. As I said in the immediate aftermath of the stunning announcement of his abdication, he will still be the pope to me (certainly until a successor is elected); and at least I can still correctly call him Pope Benedict, red slippers or not. But his departure is still a terrible blow. As I wrote after the announcement, “Catholics love their pope; and for the pope simply to disappear, for this beloved person to say, in effect, that after the end of this month we will never see him or hear from him again is like a kind of bereavement without a death and the final closure that a good death brings.” In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Queen sent a very powerful message, read out by the British Ambassador at a memorial service in St Thomas’s Church, Fifth Avenue: it included an unforgettable sentence: “grief is the price we pay for love”. Don’t misunderstand me: this isn’t of course a tragedy on anything like the same level of desperate horror. But the premature end of this particular pontificate, all the same, still feels to me to be not without its tragic dimension (note I said “feels”; what one thinks on mature reflection isn’t necessarily at all the same thing): and it is and will remain a source of grief to me and many others.

One of my correspondents wrote that “This week will be something akin to heartbreaking – now the Church will have a new Papa … as I entered the Church at Benedict XVI’s first Easter he will always be Papa in some way to me … but also a grandpapa – a comforting thought”. Well call me sentimental if you like, but it is rather comforting isn’t it? Not Holy Father, but Holy Grandfather: the new pope will probably be at least twenty years his junior. And he will still be Pope Benedict. How could he be anything else?