Pope enjoys swansong; influence still a question
New questions arose about how much influence Pope Benedict XVI will exert over his successor Thursday after the Vatican confirmed that Benedict's closest adviser would continue to serve him as a private secretary while running the new pope's household.
For a second day of his emotional farewell tour, Benedict sent a pointed message to his successor and to the cardinals who will elect him about the direction the Catholic Church must take once he is no longer pope. While these remarks have been clearly labeled as Benedict's swansong before retiring, his influence after retirement remains the subject of intense debate.
Benedict's resignation Feb. 28 creates an awkward situation - the first in 600 years - in which the Catholic Church will have both a reigning pope and a retired one. The Vatican has insisted that Benedict will cease to be pope at exactly 8 p.m. on the historic day, devoting himself entirely to a life of prayer.
Benedict confirmed that on Thursday during a farewell audience with a few thousand priests who live and work in the diocese of Rome, saying that he would remain "hidden" to the world in retirement.
"Even as I retire now in prayer, I will always be close to all you and I am sure that you will be close to me, even if to the world I remain hidden," he told the priests.
But the Vatican confirmed that Benedict's trusted private secretary, the 56-year-old Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, would remain in that post and live with Benedict in a converted monastery in the Vatican gardens. He will also go to work every day in the Apostolic Palace, where he is prefect of the papal household, a job he has had for just over two months.
That dual role would seem to bolster concerns expressed privately by some cardinals that Benedict - by staying inside the Vatican and having his confidant working for the new pope - would continue to exert at least some influence on the new papacy and the governance of the church.
Asked about this potential conflict, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Thursday that the job of prefect is very technical, organizing the pope's audiences, and has no real governmental or doctrinal role to it.
"In this sense this won't be a profound problem I think," he said.
After the pope, Gaenswein is the most visible figure at the Vatican. Dubbed "Gorgeous Georg" for his good looks, he was featured on the cover of the Italian edition of Vanity Fair last month under the headline "It isn't a sin to be beautiful."
He has been Benedict's private secretary since 2003, though the two worked together for a number of years before that at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict headed before becoming pope in 2005. He is almost always by the pope's side: holding his glasses for him, driving with him in the popemobile during foreign visits, taking walks with him.
Gaenswein clearly has the trust of Benedict: He could have been tarnished by the scandal over the leaks of papal documents last year, since the thefts took place right under his nose. Instead, Gaenswein was promoted to prefect of the papal household after the pope's ex-butler was convicted of aggravated theft.
The new pope can replace Gaenswein as soon as he is elected, and it has long been rumored that Gaenswein at some point would be appointed archbishop in his native Germany. But at least for the near-term transition, Gaenswein's role as a close collaborator both with a current and former pope poses some potential problems, said John Thavis, retired Vatican correspondent for the Catholic News Service and author of a new book on the Holy See.
"We have Pope Benedict, who is going to live in supposed isolation, and yet he is going to be connected daily to the new pontificate through this intermediary," he said. "You know it is hard to imagine that Archbishop Georg would not be carrying some kind of information, reflections, opinions from one man to the other."
Also Thursday, Lombardi confirmed that Benedict had hit his head during his March 2012 trip to Mexico but denied that it played any "relevant" role in his decision to resign. The Vatican newspaper has said the pope decided to step down after the exhausting trip, which also took the pontiff to Cuba.
Italy's La Stampa newspaper reported Thursday that Benedict had hit his head on the sink when he got up in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar bedroom in Leon, Mexico. Blood stained his hair, pillow and carpet, the report said. No one outside the pope's inner circle knew, the report said, because the cut was neither deep nor serious and was covered by his skullcap.
Lombardi confirmed the injury, but said "it was not relevant for the trip, in that it didn't affect it, nor in the decision" to resign.
Benedict also fell and broke his right wrist in 2009 during a late-night fall in an unfamiliar bedroom at his Alpine vacation home.
The pope's only public appearance Thursday was the meeting with the Roman priests, during which he offered a 45-minute lucid and often funny monologue about the Second Vatican Council.
Benedict was a young theological expert at Vatican II, the 1962-65 meetings that brought the Catholic Church into the modern world with important documents on the church's relations with other religions, its place in the world and its liturgy.
Benedict has spent much of his eight-year pontificate seeking to correct what he considers the misinterpretation of Vatican II, insisting that it wasn't a revolutionary break from the past as liberal Catholics paint it, but a renewal and a reawakening of the best traditions of the ancient church.
He drove that point home Thursday, blaming botched media reporting of the council's deliberations for having reduced the work to "political power struggles between various currents in the church."
Because the media's interpretation was more accessible than that of the council participants, that version fueled popular understanding of what the council was all about, Benedict said.
That led in the following years to "so many calamities, so many problems, really so many miseries: Seminaries that closed, convents that closed, the liturgy that was banalized," he said.
In what will be one of his final public remarks as pope, Benedict said he hoped the "true council" will be understood.
"Our job in this `Year of Faith' is to work so that the true council, with the strength of the Holy Spirit, is truly realized and that the church is truly renovated," he told the priests.
Daniela Petroff contributed to this report.
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