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‘Church is in bereavement’

Pope Benedict XVI’s “unprecedented” decision to resign has left the Vatican to navigate uncharted waters. Ariadne Massa examines its impact on the Church.

The clues that Pope Benedict was toying with stepping down were there from the outset, except nobody read much into them at the time.

We need a younger version of Benedict XVI with an extra bonus skill for management

In April 2009, when he visited the earthquake-stricken city of L’Aquila, Italy, he had paid a visit to the tomb of Celeste V – a 13th century reluctant Pope who resigned to pray – and left his pallium, the woollen vestment symbolising the papal office.

A year later, Pope Benedict said in an interview that if a Pope realised he was no longer capable of handling the duties of his office then “he has a right, and in some circumstances even the duty, to resign”.

But when he announced his decision on Monday, a day marked by Catholics as the World Day of the Sick, it still sent shockwaves across the world.

Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna describes this historic gesture as an earthquake, an “unprecedented situation” that has “profoundly affected” him.

“The Church is in bereavement, coming to terms with bidding Benedict XVI farewell and waiting for his successor,” he says.

The situation is so unparalleled many fear that with two popes living on the same Vatican grounds there is the risk of a clash of teachings, but Mgr Scicluna does not believe this will be the case insisting there will only be one Pope and one papal magisterium (teaching office) at any given time.

With everybody’s eyes now focused on the cardinals who will elect a new Pope to step into the red slippers of the 85-year-old German pontiff, many are calling for a younger man. Mgr Scicluna agrees.

“We need a younger version of Benedict XVI with an extra bonus skill for management: he would be a man of God, a true shepherd, a competent teacher of the faith with an eye to reining in the Roman Curia; a tall order by any standard,” he says.

He believes in the 21st century the Church should focus on a harmonious synthesis of being both a people’s church and a clerical church.

What does he feel are the questions hammering at the Vatican’s doors that can no longer be ignored?

“Transparency and accountability in management and leadership. There is an urgent need to engage the world with respect and hope, offering the good news of the Gospel through witness and service,” he replies.

Bets have already been placed on the Pope’s successor with the odds of having a pope from Africa seeming more likely as the West loses its faith and the Far East and Africa open up to the Catholic faith.

Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 68; Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, 64; and Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, 80, are among the bookies’ favourites.

Maltese novelist Oliver Friggieri too laments the “atheist West” where faith in Europe is in crisis and is hopeful an African Pope will be elected to serve as an intercontinental bridge.

He thinks believers want a full-time Church involved in God and the new Pope should be able to give courage to those who are suffering.

Age, he insists, should not make a difference.

The exceptional situation has left the Vatican scrambling with redefining the rituals of electing a new Pope and having another exit since tradition has normally come into play when the pontiff dies.

These rituals are very important for believers, according to anthropologist Mark-Anthony Falzon as each one – from the clothes a pope wears to the ring of the fisherman that is used to seal official documents – serves to transform the person into the special leader of the Catholic Church.

Prof. Falzon imagines that now the rituals have been broken by this unprecedented decision it risks sparking a rethink of ritualistic principles among believers.

“If the Pope can alter an unchanging situation it may lead many to question why the Church’s stand on priests’ celibacy or having female priests cannot change too. One has to wait and see; it’ll be an interesting period for the Church.”

Benedict’s resignation explained

Why did Pope Benedict XVI resign?

In his statement, which he read out in Latin during a canonisation ceremony last Monday, the Pope said: “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

The Pope, who turns 86 in April, has lived with a pacemaker since before he became pontiff in 2005 and three months ago the battery was replaced in a routine procedure. The Vatican stressed this played no part in influencing his shock decision.

In March 2012, during his trip to Mexico and Cuba, he also fell during the night.

Cases of clerical sex abuse that surfaced during his tenure and the scandal he faced when his butler was last year convicted of stealing his private letters and leaking them are also being blamed for setting him back psychologically.

When will he step down?

The Pope will step down on February 28 at 8pm. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi explained this was simply the hour when the Pope’s day of work normally ended.

When will the next Pope be elected?

The College of Cardinals, the Church’s most senior officials who are appointed by the Pope himself, will gather in a conclave 15 to 20 days after the papacy becomes vacant to choose the new Pope.

Until yesterday, the Vatican was studying calls from cardinals to hold the conclave earlier than planned to have a new pontiff in place before the start of Holy Week on March 24, which culminates on Easter Sunday, March 31.

The 15-20 day waiting period is in place to allow cardinals abroad sufficient time to make the journey to Rome. Given that they already knew when the Pope was stepping down, there was plenty of time to plan their trip.

What is the election process?

There are currently 203 cardinals from 69 countries. The rules of the conclave were changed in 1975 to exclude all cardinals over the age of 80 from voting. During the forthcoming conclave 117 cardinals are eligible to vote.

The Vatican has stressed that Pope Benedict will not be involved in the election of his successor, but observers believe the fact that he is still alive will still have an influence and the chosen one is likely to have a similar spirit and mind.

During the conclave in the Sistine Chapel, cardinals reside within theVatican and are not permitted any contact with the outside world. Pope John Paul II changed the rules of the conclave so a Pope could be elected by simple majority. But Pope Benedict XVI changed the requirements back so that a two-thirds-plus-one vote is required.

How will the result of the vote broadcast?

After the votes are counted the ballots are burned. If there is no winner a chemical is mixed with the ballots to produce black smoke, which signals failure. White smoke means a new Pope has been chosen.

What will Pope Benedict do once he steps down?

In his farewell address to priests in his capacity as Bishop of the Italian capital, Pope Benedict said he will see out his life in prayer “hidden from the world”.

He will first go to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo and then permanently into the four-storey convent, behind St Peter’s Basilica on Vatican grounds.

What will Pope Benedict be referred to once he steps down?

The Vatican remains unsure what his title will be. A decision has also yet to be taken on whether he will wear the white of a pope, the red of a cardinal or the black of an ordinary priest.

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