L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict XVI delivers his message during his farewell meeting to cardinals Thursday. Benedict promised his "unconditional reverence and obedience" to his successor.
In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper
In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict XVI delivers his message during his farewell meeting to cardinals Thursday. Benedict promised his "unconditional reverence and obedience" to his successor. AP
Today is the last day of the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Just two weeks ago, the German-born pope stunned the world by announcing he would be the first pope to resign in 600 years. After eight years on the throne of St. Peter, Benedict leaves behind a church in crisis.
Since the announcement, bulletins issued by the Vatican have ranged from the lofty — how Benedict will retire to a life dedicated to prayer and study — to the mundane, such as the details of packing the pope's personal belongings and what he'll leave behind.
In a sign that even the Vatican was totally unprepared for the resignation, it took two weeks to decide Benedict's new title and what he would wear.
And while the cardinals publicly praise Benedict for his courageous act, privately many are reassessing his legacy.
"They're sympathetic with Benedict, but they saw that really he was not able to push through some big items on his agenda," says John Thavis, author of the recently published Vatican Diaries. "They see Benedict as perhaps a frustrated pope, frustrated in his ambitions, frustrated in part by his own top officials, and I think that's where we're seeing some more open criticism than we ever saw before."
Benedict's papacy has been marred by crises: He angered Muslims when he quoted inflammatory remarks on Islam and violence; he offended Jews when he lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist Holocaust-denying bishop; and he was severely reprimanded by European politicians over his remarks that condoms help spread AIDS. He also failed to restore unity with Anglicans and Orthodox.
The scandal that has most haunted Benedict is that of children abused by pedophile priests.
Before becoming pope, as theological watchdog, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had overseen many cases of clerical sex abuse.
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests (SNAP), says Benedict has been credited for meeting with and apologizing to victims, and issuing new guidelines on handling cases, but he has not sanctioned one bishop for covering up abuse cases.
"Pope Benedict came into office knowing more about abuse than any other Catholic official on the planet, and I think many victims and many Catholics had some real hope that he would clean house, and he clearly didn't," Clohessy says.
The sex abuse cloud will hang over the conclave to elect the new pope. As will a confidential report on last year's embarrassing leaks of private papers that revealed corruption and turf battles within the Vatican. Benedict has left the report for his successor's eyes only, but many cardinals are already asking to be briefed on its contents.
Massimo Franco, author of numerous books about the Vatican, says the scandals have revealed Benedict to be a poor manager and a victim of the powerful administrative apparatus known as the Roman Curia.
Inflatable letters compose a message in Italian reading "Thank you, Benedict, we are all with you" Thursday in Castel Gandolfo, the scenic town south of Rome where Benedict will spend his first post-Vatican days and make his last public blessing as pope.
Inflatable letters compose a message in Italian reading "Thank you, Benedict, we are all with you" Thursday in Castel Gandolfo, the scenic town south of Rome where Benedict will spend his first post-Vatican days and make his last public blessing as pope. Alessandra Tarantino/AP
In speculating on why the 85-year-old pontiff is stepping down, Franco says in the past, popes were always protected by their inner circle.
"With Pope Benedict XVI, we saw the reverse — we saw the pope obliged to defend his advisers who were attacked, and the outcome was that the pope was overexposed and eventually was forced to resign," he says.
When the resignation becomes official Thursday at 8 p.m., when Benedict is at the Castel Gandolfo summer residence, spokesman Father Tom Rosica says, the Vatican enters what's known as the sede vacante — the Holy See becomes empty.
"And very symbolically, we will see the doors or the gates of Castel Gandolfo close, and the Swiss Guards will leave at that point," Rosica says. "They leave because the Swiss Guards are assigned to protect the pope; he is no longer pope at 8 o'clock in the evening, so they are no longer protecting him."
As a retiree, Benedict's security will be ensured by Vatican police.
But it's still unclear what influence the pope emeritus will wield and how two popes will co-exist inside the Vatican.