VATICAN CITY — Benedict XVI’s final moments as pope yesterday were in keeping with his simple, understated character.
There was no drama, no long speeches or self-indulgence — simply an acceptance of a reality and a prevailing sense of trust that Christ is at the heart of the Church, sentiments Benedict expressed to cardinals earlier in the day.
As dusk fell at the end of a second day of unseasonably beautiful weather in Rome, a medium-sized crowd had gathered in St. Peter’s Square to follow the Pope’s departure on large video monitors. Almost no voices could be heard, and, apart from the whirring of a police helicopter overhead, the square was unusually silent, even somber.
But shortly before 5pm, cheers erupted as the screens on the square began showing the Pope walking slowly through the corridors of the Apostolic Palace with the aid of a cane. He was accompanied by his closest aides.
On emerging into the San Damaso courtyard, he greeted staff from the Secretariat of State, saying farewell to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, and a number of other senior officials.
The bells of St. Peter’s Basilica and other churches began to peal as the Holy Father was driven the short distance to the Vatican helipad, where he said a final farewell to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, president emeritus of the governorate of the Vatican city state, and heads of the Vatican police. One more final wave, and the Pope boarded the Italian military helicopter for the 15-minute flight to Castel Gandolfo.
Accompanying Benedict on his final journey as Pope were his personal secretaries Archbishop Georg Gänswein and Msgr. Alfred Xuereb; along with Msgr. Leonardo Sapienza, the deputy prefect of the papal household; Dr. Patrizio Polisca, the pope’s personal physician; and Sandro Mariotti, Benedict’s butler.
As the chopper gently lifted off, it then quickly gained altitude and took a circuitous route around Rome to give as many people as possible a chance to say their own farewells. As it flew over St. Peter’s Square, several thousand well-wishers cheered and waved one last time.
Among those present in the square was Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston.
“It’s very moving to see how much this man is loved and will be missed,” he said. “It’s a beautiful gesture these people have shown to come here and personally bid him farewell.”
Followed by a second helicopter, operated by a Vatican television crew, everyone, including those in the square watching on large screens, was able to follow the Pope’s entire journey as it flew low into the hazy, yellow-ochre sunset, over the Colosseum and the many other ancient landmarks of Rome.
Many praised the footage of the event, managed by the new director of Vatican television, filmmaker Msgr. Edoardo Vigano. The coverage was “tremendous,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, said today, “because they involved us and the whole world in the beautiful story that unfolded yesterday. … We’re very grateful to them for what they did.”
On arrival in Castel Gandolfo, the Pope was driven the short distance from the helipad to the Apostolic Palace, where a crowd of 7,000 people were waiting to greet him. Minutes later, he appeared on the balcony and thanked the throng.
“I am happy to be with you, surrounded by the beauty of creation and your sympathy that does so much good for me. Thank you for your friendship and love,” the Pope said at around 5:30pm from the balcony of his villa.
“You know that today is different than previous ones. I’m no longer the pope. Until 8pm I am, but then, afterwards, I am no longer pope of the Catholic Church,” he said.
Benedict then offered a window into how he sees this stage of his life.
“I’m simply a pilgrim that is starting the last stage of his pilgrimage on earth,” he remarked, “but I would still like with my heart, with my love, with my prayer, with my reflection, with all my inner strength to work for the common good of the Church and of humanity, and I feel very supported by your sympathy."
“Let’s go ahead together with the Lord for the good of the Church and of the world,” he said as he finished his brief greeting.
Pope Benedict XVI then gave his last papal blessing to the crowd.
“Thank you. And now I impart to you the Lord’s blessing with my whole heart. May God bless you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thank you and good night. Thanks to all of you.”
A Castel Gandolfo Arrivederci
Michael Severance, a resident who watched the events unfold, said the mood in the Bernini-designed town square of the papal summer residence “was anything but sullen.”
“The vibe was actually electric: A few thousand of us rushed over from the nearby town of Albano after 5pm and chanted in rhythm Be-ne-det-to! one last time as the helicopter swirled above our heads,” he recalled. “Other locals sounded loud musical instruments, waved flags and hoisted banners of affection. And we all brought rosaries and other religious objects for one last blessing.”
“It was an arrivederci fit for a king,” he said.
At 8pm Rome time, a loud bell then rang eight times. The crowd shouted Viva il Papa! (“Long live the Pope!”). The Swiss Guards entered Castel Gandolfo and hung up their ceremonial halberds on the inner walls, as there is no longer a sitting pope for them to protect.
They then closed the two large doors and bolted them shut, symbolizing the definitive end of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate.
The Swiss Guards departed, and three Vatican gendarmes dressed in black uniforms marched to the inside of the gates, stood guard and saluted.
Witnessing such an historic and momentous moment will be unforgettable for many of those present.
“Even the small children, including three of my own, were aware of the historic moment,” said Severance, who works at the Acton Institute in Rome. “Many of our families would see him several times from July to October in the intimacy of his courtyard on Sundays and have their bambini blessed by Benedict.”
“We will all dearly miss him as our summer neighbor for the last eight years,” he added. “This was the only pain we felt, while happy and confident in his decision to retire to prayer and study.”
Reflecting on how he thought Benedict XVI will be remembered, Cardinal O’Malley told the Register, “As Benedict the teacher, the man who was able to break open the word of God for all of us in such a wonderful way and touch our hearts with the message of the Gospel.”
At a Vatican press conference today, video footage was shown of the sealing of the papal apartments in the Vatican. Beginning at 8pm yesterday evening, Cardinal Bertone, now camerlengo (chamberlain, supervisor of the apostolic chamber) — an office that comes to life during the period sede vacante — said a prayer before proceeding to seal the rooms.
The film showed the seal, complete with the crest of the interregnum, being applied to a private elevator the pope uses to move from his apartments to public rooms and the main doors of the apartments.
Cardinal Bertone was seen holding a stick in his hand, called the ferrula, which is a sign of authority belonging to the chamberlain. Today at 12:30, the doors of the Lateran Palace were also sealed by the vice chamberlain, Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata.
The Vatican said that the Curia is now being run by the sostituto at the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu.
Father Lombardi revealed today that Benedict XVI enjoyed a “good night’s sleep.” Both he and Archbishop Gänswein had dinner and then watched two Italian TV newscasts of the day’s events. They then said their regular evening prayers, after which Benedict XVI then read many messages and went for a walk through corridors and some of the great reception rooms of the palace overlooking the lake.
Today, the pope emeritus celebrated Mass as usual at 7am and has been spending time praying the Rosary in the Vatican Gardens, as he usually does. Father Lombardi also said Benedict brought books with him on theology and the history of the Church. One particular title that caught Archbishop Gänswein’s eyes was a book Benedict purchased when it first came out: Theological Aesthetics by Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Father Lombardi also said that in the weeks leading up to his departure, Benedict played piano every evening after dinner. “You can probably be sure he’ll take up that habit again in Castel Gandolfo,” he said.
In the meantime, work has begun in earnest to prepare for the upcoming conclave. Cardinal Angelo Sodano has officially notified all cardinals that the Apostolic See is vacant. He said the first general congregation will take place at 9:30am March 4, and daily meetings will continue until all electors are accounted for and a conclave date has ben set.
Father Lombardi said one should not expect a date for the conclave to be set on Monday, as cardinals need to talk a little before agreeing on when it should take place.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.