Cardinals look to conclave after pope’s resignation
VATICAN CITY (AFP) – Catholic cardinals from around the world began preparing for a conclave to elect a new pope on Friday, a day after Benedict XVI became the first pontiff to resign in 700 years telling the world he would be a “pilgrim” on life’s last journey.
Letters were due to be sent later Friday inviting the cardinals to take part in meetings next week that will set the date for a conclave under Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel.
The meetings — known as “general congregations” — will also be a way of vetting possible candidates to be leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics at a difficult time for the Church.
The conclave is to start in the first half of March.
After an emotional final day as pope on Thursday, world newspapers paid tribute to the 85-year-old German pope’s historic decision, which could set a precedent for ageing popes in the future.
“Farewells made with courage, humility and grace,” ran a headline on an editorial in the German conservative daily Die Welt, while top-selling tabloid Bild said: “Our pope has retired.”
“This is how great popes go,” said Italian daily Il Messaggero, hailing the “greatness of his humility, the simple step of a pilgrim”.
La Repubblica daily said the 85-year-old Benedict’s troubled eight-year reign had ended abruptly “not with an apocalypse, but with the sigh or relief of a man who became man again.”
Benedict’s final hours as pope were filled with ritual and emotion, from the pealing bells of St Peter’s Basilica to the Swiss Guards who shut the giant doors of his new temporary residence of Castel Gandolfo near Rome to mark the moment that Benedict was no longer pope.
The Vatican flag flying over the palace was lowered as the Swiss Guards — the papacy’s military corps since the 15th century — formally completed their mission to protect the pope.
“Long live the pope!” a crowd outside chanted as a clock chimed the hour that Benedict said he would step down in an announcement earlier this month that stunned the world.
“I will no longer be pope but a simple pilgrim,” the pope told supporters earlier after arriving at Castel Gandolfo from the Vatican in a helicopter that flew as the bells of St Peter’s rang out.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a former leftist guerrilla who leads the world’s largest Catholic country, led tributes from world leaders.
“I express my respect for His Holiness’s decision,” Rousseff said, thanking Benedict for his “gestures of appreciation” toward Brazil including creating the first Brazilian saint.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended a mass in Berlin to mark the pope’s last day in office and at a special mass in New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral hundreds of worshippers paid homage.
Many ordinary Catholics hope the next pope will breathe new life into a Church hit hard by rising secularism in the West and discrimination against Christians in some developing countries.
The former pope Benedict will now be known as “Roman pontiff emeritus” — a completely new title created especially for this new situation.
He will still be addressed as “Your Holiness”.
In a last tweet sent from his @pontifex Twitter account as he left the Vatican, the pope said: “Thank you for your love and support.”
“May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives.”
Benedict is only the second pope to resign in the Church’s 2,000-year history, and in his final hours as pontiff he took the highly unusual step of pledging allegiance to his successor.
“Among you there is also the future pope to whom I promise my unconditional obedience and reverence,” the pope said in final remarks to 144 cardinals in the ornate Clementine Hall in the Vatican.
“Let the Lord reveal the one he has chosen,” said the pope, as the cardinals doffed their red berettas and lined up to kiss the papal ring.
The Vatican has said the former pope will live in Castel Gandolfo for the next two months before taking up permanent residence in an ex-convent on a hilltop in the Vatican grounds overlooking Rome.
The theologian pope announced his decision to step down in a speech in Latin on February 11, saying he no longer had the “strength of mind and body” required by a fast-changing world.
The only other pope who resigned by choice was Celestine V, a humble hermit who stepped down in 1294 after just a few months in office out of disgust with Vatican corruption and intrigue.
Once Benedict takes up residence inside the Vatican, the Church will be in the unprecedented situation of having a pope and his predecessor living within a stone’s throw of each other.
Vatican analysts have suggested his sudden exit could set a precedent for ageing popes in the future, and many point to a more youthful and pastoral figure as the best candidate for pope.
From Catholic reformers calling for women clergy and an end to priestly celibacy, to growing secularism in the West and ongoing scandals over sexual abuses by paedophile priests going back decades, the next pope will have a tough agenda.
But the memory of the shy German pope will linger with many, like Patrizia Gasperini, a 40-year-old shopkeeper in Castel Gandolfo who named her daughter Benedetta in his honour.
“We’ve been privileged to see a different, more humane side to him over the years, and grown to love him,” she said.