The Vatican is no longer the same. Benedict XVI’s shock decision twelve months ago to step down and go back to being Joseph Ratzinger, changed the course of the Church’s history
It was 11 February 2013 and the Vatican was
celebrating the anniversary of the Lateran Pacts.
The Pope was holding a
Consistory for the decrees of canonization of some saints and after
announcing the date for the proclamations of sainthood, Benedict XVI
began to read out something else in Latin from a sheet he was holding.
He said he had something important to tell the Church: he was getting
old (“ingravescente aetate”) and said he no longer had the strength to
continue at the helm of Peter’s boat in an increasingly fast-paced
world. Having prayed for a long time, he took the conscious decision to
leave the papacy. He announced the beginning of the sede vacante
period at 20:00 on 28 February.
Benedict XVI had issued a declaration -
which he wrote himself - the previous afternoon, before the Secretariat
of State translated into the various languages in the morning of Monday
11 February. The Substitute of the Secretary of State Angelo Becciu made
each translator swear that they would not break the secret which was
only to remain such for a few hours.
Those present we left speechless, the Almoner
Guido Pozzo who was close to him seemed petrified and a number of
cardinals stared blankly, their facial expressions frozen. The Dean of
the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano broke the unreal silence which
had settled across the room, stating on behalf of everyone that the news
had come "like a lightning bolt in a calm sky.”
The strong force of change and testimony that
marks Francis’ pontificate every day makes us forget that only a year
ago, many interpreted Benedict XVI’s resignation as an escape, a sign of
powerlessness in the face of the crisis unleashed by the Vatileaks
scandal and of an inability to govern and reform the Church.
months on from that shock announcement, Benedict XVI’s decision is now
seen as a gesture of great humility which has had positive consequences
for the life of the Church.
Ratzinger’s resignation was not the only historic
step taken, a number of others followed: the Pope Emeritus’ helicopter
flight to the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo where the gate
was closed at 8 pm, a symbolic ending of an era.
The election of the
first Jesuit, Latin American Pope in the history of the Catholic Church
and the first ever to call himself Francis. The unprecedented
“cohabitation” of two Popes in the Vatican, not to mention the changes
Bergoglio made to the Church’s image and the substance of the papacy,
with the “Evangelii Gaudium” calling for its conversion.
Today’s Church is no longer the Church it was a
year ago. The new Pope is able to communicate with everyone and inspire
enthusiasm in so many people, even those who are far from the faith. A
reform process is underway, involving the reshuffle of Curia dicasteries
and a reorganisation of the IOR and other Vatican bodies, the primary
aim of which should be to serve the local Churches.
But the change introduced by Francis goes way
beyond structural reforms. He is calling the entire Church to come out
of itself and abandon any power ideals.
The problem of having two Popes
living alongside one another in the Vatican also seems to have been
solved, partly thanks to the natural way in which Francis has accepted
the situation: “it’s like having a grandfather at home,” he said,
referring to how valuable Benedict XVI’s wisdom was to him and the
Benedict XVI’s discretion and his stated intention not to
interfere in his successor’s work – he promoted obedience to his
successor even before the election - were also a great help.
Many compare the new buzz Francis has brought to
the Vatican to the start of a new conciliar season. And it all started
one year ago, when for the first time in millennia the Pope decided to
step down because of old age: a courageous act and a reform along the
same lines as the Council.
The shock of Ratzinger’s resignation made the
election of the Pope from the other side of the world possible; a Pope
who looks at the institution he has been put in charge of from the
outside in, focusing on the peripheries rather than the centre, the poor
instead of the opulent and selfish West, introducing a new, radically
evangelical outlook both in the field of government and pastoral care.
But has the Vatican been cleared of the poison
that ran through its veins a year ago? “I hope the Vatileaks scandal is
now a closed the book although there may still be some documents that
are being held, ready to be thrown out there,” the former Secretary of
State, Tarcisio Bertone, told Italian news channel TgCom24 a few
days ago. “I have a considerable archive, so I am in a position to
review and look over on these past years with objective documentation on
the facts and provide another reading of events that may be useful in
setting the record straight on certain off-the-mark interpretations,” he
As the first anniversary of Ratzinger’s
resignation nears, there’s news of possible new leaks.
The media is
awash again with images of a Curia plagued by betrayals and power
struggles and networks towards the end of Ratzinger’s pontificate, as
described in French author Nicolas Diat’s book, entitled: “L’homme qui ne voulait pas être pape - histoire secrète d’un règne”
(published by Albin Michel).
The book paints a rather discomforting
portrait of the former Pope’s entourage, of the underworld that was
operating around him. It shows that many top figures still seem to be
keeping quiet about what went on, overcome by the fear of what may
happen if they publicly begin to accuse one another, revealing the
identities of the individuals that unleashed the chaos which led to
The German theologian-Pope proved his ability as a
reformer in his fight against sex abuse of minors by the clergy and by
setting the financial transparency reform process in motion.
stepped down from the papacy he proved himself to be a real reformer.
His resignation was an act which reinforced the Church’s potential for
reform and presented the figure of the Bishop of Rome in a new light.
Ratzinger’s shock resignation marked the worsening of a serious crisis
in the Church which called its governing bodies into question but at the
same time created a spark for renewal which had not been seen in
Twelve months later, the outcome of this change, which has
affected the entire Church, is still not clear.