Last updated: February 27, 2013 3:40 pm

Pope alludes to turbulent year of reign

The curtain will fall on the short but eventful papacy of Benedict XVI on Thursday when the gates are drawn shut at mid-evening in Castel Gandolfo, the apostolic summer palace outside Rome where he will reside during the conclave that picks his successor.

The 85-year-old Benedict, to be known for the rest of his life as pope emeritus and still to be addressed as “Your Holiness”, will withdraw to one of 12 monastic cells in the Mater Ecclesiae convent within the walls of the Vatican.

“The pope will use his time to pray and study,” Father Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said this week.

Benedict’s successor, to be chosen at a conclave of 115 cardinals who will convene in the Sistine Chapel in about two weeks’ time, will inherit a Roman Catholic Church shaken by child abuse scandals and riddled with disputes in the Vatican hierarchy but the spiritual home of 1.2bn faithful from all corners of the earth.

The German-born Benedict toured St Peter’s Square in his popemobile on Wednesday for his final papal audience, delighting a banner-waving crowd of pilgrims who chanted his name and were estimated by the Holy See to number 150,000.

In a possible allusion to the turbulent events of the last 12 months of his eight-year reign, the pope said: “The Church has had moments of joy and light, but also moments of agitated waters and wind that have not been easy.”

Benedict surprised millions of Catholics when he announced on February 11 that he would abdicate, making him the first pontiff to step down voluntarily since Celestine V in 1294.

Most of the cardinals who will select the next pope have already arrived in Rome, preparing for a conclave whose “Dominus”, or presiding prelate, will be Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, a 79-year-old Italian and carpenter’s son with expert knowledge of Vatican protocol and an insider’s familiarity with its power struggles.

All the cardinal-electors are men elevated to their present rank either by Benedict or by John Paul II, the Polish-born pope who reigned from 1978 to 2005. Some “vaticanisti”, as specialists in the Holy See are known, see this as a sign that the new pope will be cast in much the same conservative theological mould as Benedict and John Paul.

However, it remains an open question whether the cardinals will elect an Italian pontiff, like all popes for 450 years before John Paul, or choose another European or even a Latin American, African or Asian. The only virtual certainty is that the new pope will not come from the US, on account of its position as the world’s most powerful country.

Benedict will bid farewell to the cardinals present in Rome on Thursday morning as well as to members of the secretariat of state, the oldest department of the curia, the Holy See’s bureaucracy.

He will then fly at 5pm Italian time by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, where, at 8pm precisely, the palace gates will close and the Swiss Guards, protectors of the lives of popes for five centuries, will make their departure.

Father Lombardi said the pope, in retirement, would wear a simple white cassock with no cape and would exchange the traditional red papal shoes, symbolising the blood of martyrs, for a pair of brown shoes that he received last year as a gift in León, Mexico.

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