With Pope Benedict's retirement, the where is clearer than the how

Workers are renovating a former nunnery in the Vatican to house the retired pope. How he will interact with his future successor remains uncertain. 

Domenico Stinellis/AP
Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessing during his last Angelus noon prayer, from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Feb. 24.

It is about to become the world's most famous retirement home, its occupant the world's most famous retiree. 

A former nunnery set within the stone walls of the Vatican is being extensively refurbished by workers in preparation for the arrival of Benedict XVI, who steps down as pope and head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics on Thursday.

The 85-year-old German pontiff’s decision to live out the rest of his days just a few hundred yards from where his successor will guide the crisis-hit church has thrown up some highly awkward questions for the Holy See.

Will the former pope interfere in his replacement’s affairs? How will they greet each other when they bump into each other in the Vatican gardens or anywhere else in the tiny sovereign nation? And will Pope Benedict become a sort of shadow pope, his presence looming large over the new papacy?

Vatican officials insist that Pope Benedict plans to adopt a quiet life of prayer and reflection and that he will not meddle in the affairs of the Holy See.

But at his last ever Sunday address today, Pope Benedict assured 100,000 people crowding St Peter’s Square that he would not be “abandoning” the church.

He raised questions about exactly what his role will be when he told the faithful that he would "continue to serve it [the church] with the same dedication and the same love which I have tried to do so until now, but in a way more suitable to my age and to my strength."

A former nunnery, with a view

Whatever his role turns out to be, it will be performed in comfort. The three-story nunnery, which has an adjoining chapel, boasts a study, a library, and living quarters for the band of personal staff that Pope Benedict will bring with him from his papal apartments.

Set on a hill within the Vatican City State, it commands wonderful views of the terracotta rooftops of Rome, the Spanish Steps, and the distant Apennine mountains, which at this time of year are coated in glistening snow.

Gardeners were busy weeding and trimming the surrounding gardens and a cement mixer churned away in the driveway that leads to the entrance of the residence. 

Mature palm trees and umbrella pines provide shade and the roof of the Sistine Chapel looms so close it almost seems to be within touching distance.

It is there that 116 cardinals will gather next month to elect Pope Benedict’s successor in a secretive, centuries-old process known as a conclave. (Read here for how a conclave works.)

Past conclaves have lasted for weeks and occasionally ended in fistfights between feuding cardinals. In modern times, it is rarely more than a few days before white smoke wafts from a chimney stack on the Sistine Chapel’s roof, signaling the election of a new pope.

First, to a castle

Pope Benedict will not move into the ex-convent immediately. On Thursday afternoon at around 5 p.m. local time he will be flown by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, a magnificent castle that sits on the lip of a steep-sided extinct volcano.

It is the traditional summer residence of the papacy and has been used by successive popes for 400 years to escape the squalor, heat, and intrigue of Rome.

Pope Benedict is expected to spend around two months living in the castle, while renovations to the nunnery are completed.

Attached to the castle is a huge estate made up of landscaped gardens, box hedges, mature oak trees, fish ponds, and fountains – a perfect place for Pope Benedict to indulge in long contemplative walks and consider the ramifications of his historic resignation.

There is even a small model farm, consisting of a freshly planted vineyard, greenhouses, orange and lemon trees, and a herd of 25 Friesian cows, which are prized for their milk and yogurt.

A broad, shaded terrace, built over the remains of a Roman villa constructed by Emperor Domitian, offers views of the Mediterranean. “There are also the remains of a Roman theater, which was excavated in the 1970s,” says Pier Paolo Turoli, the administrator of the estate.

Pope Benedict will live in an apartment within the castle, the oldest parts of which date back to the 13th  century.

“It was acquired by the Vatican in 1596 when the Savelli family, who owned it, were unable to pay a debt to the papacy,” says Saverio Petrillo, whose official title is director of the papal villas.

When Pope Benedict's helicopter arrives at the estate on Thursday he will be driven to the castle, which looms imposingly over the main piazza of the tiny village of Castel Gandolfo.

He will appear at a balcony over the entrance gate and greet thousands of well-wishers crammed into the cobblestoned square.

Final hours as pope

Then he will pray in the private chapel as the final moments of his pontificate tick away – at 8 p.m. precisely local time, he will cease to be pope and he will no longer be Benedict XVI, the 264th successor to St. Peter.

Vatican officials say he will pray, study, and write during his retirement. He has produced several books, the last one the final part of a trilogy on the life of Christ.

Pope Benedict has said he will live "hidden from the world," but Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has said he could provide "spiritual guidance" to his successor.

His retirement will certainly be more opulent than that enjoyed by the tiny number of popes who have resigned in the past.

When Pope Celestine V resigned after a few months in 1294 and returned to his former life as a hermit, he was hounded by the church, with his successor fearing he could be a threat and set up as an anti-pope. 

He was captured after an attempt to flee to Dalmatia and imprisoned in a castle south of Rome, where he died a few months later.

It is widely believed that an unnamed character in Dante's "The Inferno" refers to Pope Celestine; Dante consigned the man to hell for his "great refusal."

Pope Benedict's resignation may have been an ecclesiastical bombshell, but perhaps not even his sternest critics would wish a similar fate on him.

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