Life of a Pope in Retirement: Benedict turns 88

Pope Benedict, the only Pope in the past 600 years to resign, now resides in Vatican quarters.

April 16, 2015 14:48
2 minute read.

Pope Benedict. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Pope Benedict will celebrate his 88th birthday on Thursday (April 16) in a quiet fashion at the Vatican as he lives out his last years in retirement.

The pope emeritus as he is now known, made history by becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to resign, stepping down after a mere eight years, leaving the Catholic Church tainted with scandals partly produced by his own mismanagement.

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Benedict shocked the world and even his closest aides on February 11, 2013, when he announced his decision to resign from his pontificate because the effects of old age meant he was unable to complete his ministry.

"I have made this step with full understanding of its seriousness, its newness but with a profound serenity in my soul," he told crowds at his last general at the Vatican in 2013.

The two sides of his character - vigorous and rigorous theologian-teacher but reluctant chief executive - left Roman Catholicism with even more pressure for reform than when he took over the seat of St. Peter in 2005.

He admitted as much in his last big general audience, saying there were times during his papacy "when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping".

He left the Vatican on February 28 for the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome while a convent that became his permanent residence in the Vatican was being restored. He returned to the Vatican on May 2 and was rarely seen in public inside the city-state's walls after that.

There was much speculation at the time that Benedict's decision to stay in the Vatican could have a destabilizing effect on the papacy of his successor Francis, who was elected on March 13, but the fears never materialized.

Francis' new, humble and personal style made many forget the numerous crises that marked Benedict's papacy and that will remain part of his legacy.

The gaffes and missteps, such as his 2006 speech that enraged Muslims for seemingly linking Islam with irrational violence, culminated in 2012 when leaked internal papers revealed corruption and mismanagement in the Vatican.

The so-called "Vatileaks" case resulted in the arrest of his butler, Paolo Gabriele, who was convicted and given an 18-month sentence for theft. Benedict pardoned him after a few months.

While Italian media speculated that revelations in a secret Vatican report about the leaks pressured the pope to resign, the Vatican insisted it was because of bad health and old age.

Throughout his pontificate, Benedict was cheered by conservatives for trying to reaffirm traditional Catholic identity but liberals accused him of turning back the clock on reforms and hurting dialogue with Muslims, Jews and other Christians.

Despite great reverence for his charismatic, globe-trotting predecessor -- whom he put on the fast track to sainthood and beatified in 2011 -- aides said he was determined not to change his quiet manners to imitate John Paul's style.

A professional type who relaxed by playing the piano, Benedict sought to show the world the gentler side of the man who had been the Vatican's chief doctrinal enforcer for nearly a quarter of a century. That previous job had landed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with the epithet "God's rottweiler."
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