As dusk descended on the eternal city on Monday evening a solitary camera was fixed on the Papal apartment in the Vatican. The lights burned brightly before being extinguished one-by-one around 11.30pm. Just a handful of people started that day knowing it would be the day that Pope Benedict XVI would announce that he was retiring as Bishop of Rome, Successor of St Peter.
I am sure it was an evening of mixed emotions for the 85-year-old German Pontiff. It was a courageous moment and a precedent-setting decision for a man too often lazily caricatured as conservative. Benedict XVI, not for the first time, has surprised even some of his closest colleagues.
His papacy hasn’t been an easy one. Despite commentary to the contrary, Joseph Ratzinger never wanted the job. In fact, three years before Pope John Paul II died; Cardinal Ratzinger had urged John Paul to allow him to retire to his books, his piano and his cats. It was not to be, and at 78-years-of-age, the shy cardinal was elected to Peter’s throne and immediately became spiritual father to some 1.1billion Catholics and leader of a global organisation with a presence in virtually every corner of the globe.
There have been many highs with Benedict’s papacy – he has shown himself to be an expert teacher. His trilogy Jesus of Nazareth has invited believer and non-believer alike to be compelled and fall in love with the carpenter from whom everything flows.
He has confounded his critics by constantly emphasising the fact that Christianity must be understood as a joy-filled, loving relationship rather than a list of prohibitions. Where he has gone on his overseas travels, he has turned all but his harshest of detractors by his genuine warmth and humility.
Pope John Paul – who travelled more than any Pope in history – often joked that he went abroad so much to get away from the politics in the Vatican. It was a joke that Vatican insiders knew veiled a lot.
As news of Benedict’s imminent retirement broke, the conspiracy theorists went into overdrive. “There has to be something more to it,” some speculated. “I wonder what the ‘real story’ is”, others asked.
Benedict is tired. He is evidently tired in body, and likely tired in spirit. I don’t think that he is a sentimental man, but when he looks back at his papacy perhaps his biggest disappointment will be around governance. Even those who hold Benedict in most affection acknowledge that he never really got a handle on the Church’s central administration in the Roman Curia. His predecessor, perhaps worn down by resistance, largely neglected Vatican structures. This allowed ‘strongmen’ in the traditional Italian sense to emerge and exert huge influence on how the Church conducts its affairs.
One of the most spectacular moments in the last year of Benedict’s pontificate will surely be the conviction of his butler Paolo Gabriele for stealing from the Pope’s private apartment. Imagine the distress of an elderly man: not even his apartment, his closest quarters, are sacred. A man who spent every day with the Pope, a man Benedict treated like a son, stole from the Pope and leaked documents to the press in a ham-fisted attempt to expose alleged mis-governance in the heart of the Roman Curia. It’s a tragedy by any measure.
The Roman Curia – like any bureaucracy – is only as good as those who staff it. Benedict has been spectacularly badly served by those who should have been aiding him in the governance of the Church. Appointments to senior posts went to the next person in the line, rather than to someone who would usher in the long-needed ‘Curial tsunami’. In the conclave that elected Benedict, just 17per cent of the cardinals were Italian. When the College of Cardinals meets to pick his successor that will have crept up to 23 pc after decades of Italian decline due to the rising influence of the universal Church. This is not to say that Italians are the problem: they are not. The problem is that senior Italian officials within the Curia tend to choose their fellow countrymen based not on ability, but on familiarity. People are too frequently promoted beyond their competence.
Pope Benedict XVI, undoubtedly out of a sense of loyalty to people he has worked with for decades, has tolerated people who are, frankly, incompetent to be engaged in the governance of the Church. If the Pope were only a spiritual leader, this mightn’t be a problem. The fact is, however, the Catholic Church is a large multinational organisation. The proliferation of mass media has also changed the game considerably. A story now circles the globe within seconds. The Vatican has been slow to realise that English is the language of the internet and has only reluctantly accepted that the Church needs public relations advice at the highest level. This is not about spin: it is about accepting and understanding how the media works and how messages, however theologically accurate, are received.
Benedict’s successor will have to choose wisely those who will assist him in the governance of the global Church.