Benedict XVI pledges support to successor on his last day as pope

Some 118 cardinals will commence a closed door gathering to select the next pope in the coming weeks.

Tony Gentile/Reuters
Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful for the last time from the balcony of his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo Thursday. Pope Benedict left the Vatican on Thursday after pledging support to whoever succeeds him to guide the Roman Catholic Church at one of the most crisis-ridden periods in its 2,000-year history.

Pope Benedict XVI marks his historic last day on the throne of St. Peter today, before becoming the first to resign from the papacy in 600 years. Benedict gave his final public mass on Wednesday and today sent off his 39th and ultimate tweet from his official papal Twitter account before boarding a helicopter bound for Castel Gandolfo, where he will begin his retirement.

Benedict pledged his unconditional support for the future pope today, telling cardinals “May the Lord show you what he wants. Among you there is the future pope, to whom I today declare my unconditional reverence and obedience,” reports Reuters

Some 118 cardinals will commence the closed-door conclave to select the next pope in coming weeks. Only cardinals under the age of 80 are eligible to vote, and given the controversy surrounding the Catholic Church in recent years – from sexual abuse scandals to diminishing congregations in many parts of the world to polarizing public health statements related to the use of condoms and the spread of HIV/AIDS – many observers are voicing their opinions on what kind of pope the church needs.

According to The Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana, those in the developing world are hopeful the next pope will come from Asia, Africa, or Latin America:

Latin America is home to 40 percent of the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics: Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, and Mexico is the second largest.

There has never been a non-European pope in the modern era, and naming a leader from Latin America, Africa, or Asia would be considered a radical new direction for the Eurocentric Vatican. But it would also reflect a new, and to many a long overdue, pragmatism within the institution. While nearly three-quarters of Latin Americans identify as Catholic, for example, only a quarter of Europeans do….

“The future of the global church is in Africa, parts of Asia, and Latin America,” [Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University] says.

Though Benedict will not play a direct role in choosing the next pope, his influence will still be felt, notes a separate Monitor story. He appointed numerous cardinals during his eight years as pope, all of whom walk a more traditional line.

[T]he outgoing pontiff has been so instrumental in shaping the policies and personnel of the Roman Catholic church that his presence won’t matter, analysts say.

For 24 years Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, ruled the roost in the Vatican as Pope John Paul II’s enforcer, the powerful head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he has overseen a tightening, not a loosening, of church doctrine.

Since 2005 he further consolidated power as pope. So the conclave of cardinals and bishops meeting in Rome next month are there precisely due to their loyalty to Benedict’s vision of the Roman church.

There’s also the unique challenge the church must face of having a living ex-pope, something it hasn’t had to deal with for centuries. Benedict’s retirement “raises a potential difficulty for the Vatican – that even after his retirement, he could become a lightning rod for dissatisfaction and dissent with his successor, whoever that might be,” reports Nick Squires for The Monitor from Rome.

Once the new pope is selected, Benedict will retire in a monastery within the Vatican City, providing ample opportunity for the old and the new to cross paths.

[A]ccording to the Vatican spokesman, Benedict will continue to write and publish treatises and essays – he is a noted theologian who recently completed a trilogy on the life of Christ.

That could produce a situation where the former pope says one thing on an important matter, while his successor says something different.

“Traditionally popes have not resigned because there is this question of what do you do with two popes,” says John Thavis, an American who has covered the Vatican for 30 years and recently wrote  an insider’s account of the Holy See – “The Vatican Diaries.”

“What should be the role of a former pope – does he have to stay quiet for the rest of his life? What if he speaks up and disagrees with his successor? You then have the prospect of the Church effectively having two popes.”

Benedict has never been regarded as a power-hungry political player and will probably embrace a return to a quiet life of study and prayer.

“I don’t think he will deliberately upstage or contradict his successor,” says Mr. Thavis. “But he’s not going to be behind a wall of silence. If I was the new pope, I would be paying attention to whatever he writes about.”

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