Benedict bids farewell to Vatican’s ‘rough seas’

World beyond the walls: 150,000 pilgrims gather for the pope’s final audience © Getty Images

Today, the Catholic Church stands leaderless as Pope Benedict XVI resigns from his holy role. But like many papal affairs, the story behind this unprecedented event is shrouded in mystery.

‘The Lord is near,’ Pope Benedict XVI told a packed piazza at St Peter’s, Rome. ‘He does not abandon us, he is near to us and he surrounds us with his love. Thank you!’ And with that, the leader of the Catholic Church stepped down from his podium for the final time.

Two weeks ago Benedict unexpectedly announced that he had decided to stand down. His shock resignation comes into effect today. It is the first time in 600 years that a pope has left office for any reason other than death.

So why has Benedict taken such an unusual step? Poor health and old age, he says: he has lost the ‘strength of mind and body’ needed for such a gruelling role. But hundreds of popes have grown old and ill before him, and not everybody is satisfied with the explanation. Rome is awash with rumours.

Is Benedict XVI more unwell than he is letting on? The Vatican denies it. But after questioning from the press, the official spokesperson admitted that he had covered up a head wound last year. Italian media suggested that he may be suffering from cancer or leukemia.

Other gossip is potentially more damaging. Last year, a string of confidential documents from the Pope’s private office appeared in the Italian media. At the time the scandal centred on the Pope’s butler, the man who had breached the Vatican’s closely-guarded secrecy. But now, some are asking what lies behind the hints at corruption and intrigue contained in the correspondence.

There is no serious suggestion that the Pope is directly implicated in the sex abuse scandal currently rocking the Church. But there are rumours of further revelations on the horizon which Benedict did not feel fit to handle.

Some hint at financial foul play. Some claim that male prostitutes are blackmailing priests who visited them as clients. Others suggest that Benedict was a victim of Vatican politics, announcing his resignation after being confronted by a group of hostile cardinals.

Any of these rumours could contain grains of truth; or perhaps Benedict’s old age really is the full story. The Vatican is such a private and mysterious world that it is impossible to tell.

The papal seal

That is exactly the problem, say pro-reform Catholics: this tiny, secretive in-group, with its strange rituals and Medieval power structures, has no place in the modern world. If the Church is to survive, it must open its doors to the world, its ears to ordinary believers and its outdated traditions to the winds of change.

But the papacy is not just some administrative institution, say conservatives: it is the holy ministry of Christ on Earth. Divine mystery and unalterable tradition are vital to the Vatican’s spiritual authority – without them the Catholic Church is nothing.

You Decide

  1. Is the papacy an outdated institution?
  2. Should ancient customs be valued for their own sake?


  1. As well as being a spiritual leader, the pope is also head of what is often considered the world’s smallest country: Vatican City. Write a brief country profile for the Vatican, including information on its location, population, economy and method of government.
  2. Popes are often referred to as the heirs of Saint Peter. Do some research and write a paragraph explaining this description.

Some People Say...

“Everything divine is shrouded in mystery.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not Catholic. Why should I care about the pope’s affairs?
There are over a billion Catholics in the world, and many of their actions and beliefs are guided by the judgement of the papacy. Even if you don’t follow them, Catholic teachings probably affect public opinion in your country, and that in turn affects the law. For instance, Catholic teachings are often vital in maintaining hostility to abortion.
So will things change now that this pope is gone?
Perhaps. Top figures in the Church (called cardinals) will now convene in a meeting called a ‘papal conclave’ to choose the next pope from among themselves. Like Benedict and his predecessor, most of them are conservative. But there is pressure for a fresh approach – many, for instance, suggest that the first non-European pope could be on the cards.

Word Watch

St Peter’s, Rome
Saint Peter’s Basilica, an opulent, baroque cathedral constructed in 1626, is the world’s largest church. Although it is not officially the ‘mother church’ of catholicism, it is a major holy site and is often treated as the centre of the faith.
First time in 600 years
The last pope to resign from office was Pope Gregory XII in 1415. And this was hardly his own choice: Gregory served in a time when the Church was in danger of splitting apart, with two other churchmen claiming to be the rightful pope. He hoped to be reappointed after his resignation, but was instead replaced by one of his rivals.
The Vatican
The Vatican is the small region in Rome which houses the papal residence, the administrative offices of the Catholic Church and several important chapels and monasteries. Since 1929, when the pope signed the Lateran Treaty with dictator Benito Mussolini, Vatican City has also been an independent state, which the pope rules as an absolute monarch.
Sex abuse scandal
The Catholic clergy are sworn to celibacy, and the history of sex scandals within the Church goes back many centuries. But recent revelations suggest that child abuse by priests and bishops was more widespread than any had previously imagined. The Church has been thrown into crisis: just this week, the UK’s most senior Catholic resigned over allegations of ‘inappropriate acts’.

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