CASTELGANDOLFO, February 28, 2013 ( – Two hours before the end of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate, the live feed from Vatican Radio’s webcam of the piazza shows that the lights are already off in the papal apartments. In the last few years one of the simpler of the pleasures of working in Rome has been to keep an eye on the pope. After an evening out with friends or a long day running about the City you stroll across the piazza heading for the train station, and you pause and look up. Lights in the three windows in the top right-hand corner apartment of the apostolic palace were nearly always on, no matter how late you were heading home.


 It was always a kind of comfort to look up and know that Pope Benedict was there, maybe playing his piano, working on a book or an encyclical, talking with the members of his household. I always worried that he stayed up too late, worked too hard.

As I started to write this, 41 minutes to the end of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI had arrived in the little town of Castelgandolfo where he will remain in quiet retirement through the period of the sede vacante (the “empty seat”) and the conclave. He plans to spend two months at the palace normally used as the papal summer residence, then move to a monastery within Vatican City. He will not publish books, he will not take public meetings, issue statements or do any other kind of public work. His work for us will be the same that we all must undertake in the end, the reaching of one heart, perhaps great in human terms, to the greatest of all Hearts.

For Catholics, the sede vacante is always a strange time, and a time of anxiety. We feel strangely vulnerable, as children do when their father is not at home. We look at the place where he normally is, and feel the emptiness of it. Those who follow Vatican affairs are always acutely aware of the unfinished work, the hopes and needs of the Church and the world, and this anxiety is felt perhaps even more acutely now. We worry that Pope Benedict’s reform programme –  the cleaning up of the “filth” of sexual misconduct in the episcopate and clergy, the removal of the plague of banalties and restoration of holy things to the altars, the clarification of long-vexed theological and disciplinary questions – will not be carried on, that the next pope will have different priorities.

In a final farewell speech to the cardinals this afternoon, he pledged obedience to the new pope.

After a brief flight from Vatican City by helicopter this evening, Benedict was greeted by a small but enthusiastic crowd of the local townsfolk, to whom he gave his final public speech, standing on a small balcony looking down over the square.

“Dear friends, I am happy to be with you, surrounded by the beauty of creation and by your friendship, which does me such good,” he told them.

“You know that for me, today is different than the days that have gone before. You know that I am no longer supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church – until 8 o’clock I will be, but not after that.”

“I am a simple pilgrim who begins the last stage of his pilgrimage on this earth,” he told them. “But with all my heart, with all my love, with my prayers, with my reflection, with all my interior strength, I still want to work for the common good and the good of the Church and humanity.”

At the last moment, I called a journalist friend who was lucky enough to be assigned to Castelgandolfo. We spoke as he stood in the centre of the crowd in the little town square, two working journalists, but also two Catholic friends giving comfort to one another. He said the little ceremony of greeting was “Very moving and meaningful.” As we talked, I heard the sounds of the crowd singing and praying in the background over the phone.  


“It was very simple and short,” he said. “But the crowd here is packed shoulder to shoulder and everyone is showing great enthusiasm and love.”

With what my friend described as “perhaps the understatement of the year,” Pope Benedict said, “Tonight is different from other nights.” From now until the end of his life, the man we knew as Pope Benedict XVI will not be in the public eye, but, as the great spiritual writers of the Church put it, will be interiorly continuing to work for the good of the Church and the world.

“It was very moving and emotional, and very much in keeping with the style of Pope Benedict, simple and heartfelt and meaningful, his last message for the world and his flock. For those who will always be, in a very real sense, his flock,” my friend said.

The pope’s final words were simply, “buona notte,” good night.

When the pope arrived, my friend said, “the whole crowd was cheering and many were crying. Bells were ringing. When they heard the helicopter, they grabbed their flags and ran to the square in front of the papal palace.”

As we talk, they have lowered the papal flag over Castelgandolfo, removed it. While we wait for the last ceremony, people are gathered to pray the Rosary and litanies to the saints, and sing. A group of the local faithful in the Castelgandolfo parish church have been praying in front of the tabernacle for the Holy Father while the crowd waits outside, and have stayed there, praying for him throughout this whole process.

My friend spoke to a group of Knights of the ancient order of the Holy Sepulcher who were standing watching from the steps of the parish church. “One of them said, ‘He is a great, great pope.’ That’s certainly the truth.”

We watched the clock tick down to eight pm: “Even as we’re speaking the moment when he’s no longer pope is just now. The Swiss Guards are ready to stand down. There are two guards at the door and the eyes of the world are upon them.” The role of the Swiss Guards is to protect the pontiff, and when the clock strikes eight, they were to leave. Benedict will be guarded and assisted by the Vatican gendarmerie and by the Italian state police, the carabinieri.

“It’s a very strange atmosphere. Not what one would expect. It was very emotional, but while it felt like it should be sad, it wasn’t, either today or yesterday at the general audience,” said my friend who was near the papal podium at yesterday’s memorable event.

“There’s a great sadness that the Holy Father is no longer going to be the Holy Father. But mostly there’s joy and an almost palpable feeling of gratitude and appreciation of the greatness of Benedict XVI. This is what has kept people from having that sense of loss and sadness that happens when a pope dies.”

But they are sad too. “I talked to people,” my friend said, “asking what they would say to Benedict if they could, and they all said, ‘Stay with us, stay with us, stay with us,’ over and over again.”

Something that the media often misses is the simple fact that Benedict is greatly loved, personally, by faithful Catholics. Many have read him and been formed and converted by his writing. And when he became pope, the faithful around the world were filled with surprised joy.

And now? Now, “there’s a heartfelt belief and connection with the Holy Father” and “a knowledge that he is going to continue to be with us, he is going to be behind the Church and praying for us,” my friend said. “Without all the burdens of the office, without the scandals and the byzantine Vatican politics he is going to be more free. He’s going to be keeping us with him in his heart.”

And the faithful will obviously be keeping him in theirs. The other night, after the crowds had left St. Peter’s Piazza, a small clutch of Italian Catholics gathered under the colonnade, bringing guitars and song sheets. A friend in Rome got a photo of them singing to Pope Benedict the popular religious song, “Resta con noi, Signore, la sera,” Stay with us, Lord, this evening.


Those who were lucky enough to meet him over the years, and those many more who listened carefully to his speeches, always remark upon the strong sense of Benedict’s gentleness, kindness and simplicity. This courtly, gentle and extraordinarily intelligent man apparently won over even the stony hearts of some BBC journalists on his visit to Britain in 2010. He was not the showman that Pope John Paul II was, and this may have contributed to his difficulties with the world’s media, but in person it was widely commented that he radiated a more reserved and quieter holiness.

“There are individuals here who have said they are sad, and it’s heartbreaking,” my friend continued. “But there isn’t that sense of loss. They know that when he says he’s going to be united to us in his heart, in compassion with the people whom he’s led for these 8 years, he will be doing perhaps more than he did for us in that role, than he did for us when he was our Holy Father.

“When he is relieved as his responsibility as bishop of Rome, he will still have that public charge. The Lord will hear his prayers and he will know what to pray for. I think his prayers will be stronger praying to God in seclusion.”

 To cheer me up, my friend added, “It’s the Obi Wan Kenobi plan, ‘Strike me down and I will only become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.’”

 As we were talking, suddenly I heard the bells of the churches in my own town, up the coast from Rome start ringing, and then the sound of loud cheering and more bells erupted over the phone. The moment had come.

 My friend described the scene: “The polizia are taking over for the Swiss Guards, on the steps are the police who will be taking over the job of guarding the Holy Father. Dozens of journalists and ordinary people are ready with cameras waiting to capture the moment Benedict’s resignation goes into effect.”


 My friend’s voice was interrupted several times by loud shouts of “Viva il papa!”

“The Swiss Guards are saluting… shouldering arms, and getting ready to leave the papal palace.” Applause and shouts came over the phone, as the Swiss Guards ceremonially closed the gates.

 The sound came of more voices shouting in concert, “Viva il papa! Viva il papa!”

 We’ll miss you

Non sei solo, Anch’ io sono con te, “You are not alone, I’m also with you”.


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