Papal cohabitation a unique challenge

The Catholic Church faces a unique challenge starting next month when a living former pope begins a 'cohabitation' with his successor, both residing in the world's tiniest sovereign state

The portrait of Pope Benedict XVI (L) is displayed next to Pope John Paul II's on a wall of the St Paul Outside the Walls’ basilica on February 13, 2013 in Rome. The portraits of each pope are displayed in a frieze extending above the columns separating the four aisles and naves. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI

VATICAN CITY – The Roman Catholic Church faces a unique challenge starting next month when a living former pope begins a “cohabitation” with his successor, both residing in the world’s tiniest sovereign state, Vatican City.

The Vatican insists that the German pope, who stunned the world by announcing that he will retire on February 28, wants to keep a low profile in retirement.

“He will live at the Vatican in total discretion,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said Wednesday, February 13. “His presence will in no way be an impediment, interference or a problem.”

Nevertheless, Lombardi said the octogenarian’s presence would be felt and “appreciated”, and did not rule out an advisory role for the future pensioner, whose title has yet to be determined but may be Bishop of Rome Emeritus.

“If his successor wants advice from him he will be totally free to provide it… (but) this would in no way be required” of the former pope, Lombardi said.

Others in the Vatican are more nervous about the unprecedented situation.

Rino Fisichella, head of the Vatican department for the new evangelization, said the former pope may eventually have to live elsewhere.

The Vatican on Wednesday denied an Internet rumor that the pope would take up permanent residence in the Abbey of Monte Cassino — a famous monastery that was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt.

The cerebral former theology professor, who will turn 86 in April, is a prolific writer. He is currently completing a work on faith that started out as an encyclical but will have to be published as a book given Benedict’s imminent abdication.

He is also expected to spend more time with his beloved cats and playing Beethoven and Mozart compositions on his piano.

An early signal of Benedict’s intention to go quietly is his plan to leave the Vatican the day he steps aside, slipping away to the summer papal residence of Castel Gondolfo outside Rome.

The Vatican has been unable to say how long he will stay there, but has stressed he will not have any role in the Conclave of Cardinals that is to elect his successor in the third week of March — in time for Easter at the end of the month.

His absence will allow workers to prepare the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace for the new pontiff — and complete renovations of the living quarters for the soon-to-be ex-pope in a former nunnery at the Vatican.

Benedict’s choice not to return to his native Bavaria should surprise no one given that he has now lived in Rome for nearly 4 decades.

The little-known Mater Ecclesiae convent where he will reside was established by the pope’s predecessor John Paul II to house cloistered nuns.

Their departure last November, two years earlier than expected, raised few eyebrows at the time but is now cited as one of a series of clues that presaged the pope’s shock announcement, according to astute Vatican watchers.

The disused convent is an oasis of calm with its own gardens producing rare roses — one of them named after John Paul II — as well as vegetables and citrus fruit.

Modern complex

The peppers, tomatoes, courgettes and cabbages grown in the vegetable garden traditionally supply the papal kitchen.

Spread over 3 floors, the modern complex has 12 monastic cells upstairs, while the ground floor houses a kitchen, living room, library and chapel.

The cells are sparsely furnished: the only decorations to be seen are wooden crosses and a few paintings depicting scenes from religious life, according to the Vatican.

In retirement, Benedict is to revert to his birth name Joseph Ratzinger — but canon law experts are looking into whether he can reclaim his status as a cardinal, or whether the new pope can make him a cardinal once again.

Asked if the pope would receive a pension, Lombardi hesitated but said the pope would not go hungry.

“We will ensure he can live a dignified existence,” Lombardi said.

Some traditions usually observed at the death of a pope will be observed, notably the destruction of the Fisherman’s Ring used to place the papal seal on official Church documents.

“It’s an unprecedented situation, we’ll see how it goes,” Lombardi said. –