Benedict is pope no more. He is now His Holiness Benedict XVI, pope-emeritus.
At 8 p.m. Roman time, 2 p.m. Eastern, the Catholic Church entered a period called the sede vacante , (the empty chair). It is an interregnum, a period between two papacies. The church’s spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ noted last week that the church goes into a “holding pattern” until the conclave and election. The Swiss Guards standing at attention by Benedict have left their post, “their service protecting the head of the Catholic Church over — for now,” notes the Associated Press. Church watcher Rocco Palmo also adds that at the same time, “in keeping with centuries of tradition, the papal apartment will [have been] sealed until the next pontiff takes possession of it.”
So what do cardinals do when their leader has left the building? As a matter of policy, very little: Don’t expect pronouncements on female priests or a changed teaching on contraception—even without a pope, it won’t be cardinals gone wild. Lomabrdi explained “there is an important canonical principle with regard to any sede vacante, [which is]: sede vacante nihil innovetur – ‘There is to be no innovation during a vacancy.’”
Benedict’s resignation was innovative enough. His abdication, the first in nearly 600 years, seems to have thrown even in-the-know Catholic leaders. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Matt Lauer on the day of the announcement that he was ‘startled’ by the decision. The AP reports that “Sydney Cardinal George Pell has caused a stir by openly saying the resignation has been ‘slightly destabilizing’ for the church.”
Benedict attempted to calm those waters Thursday by telling a gathering of cardinals that he promised the future pope among them his “unconditional reverence and obedience.” Although he will no longer wear his famous red shoes, Benedict will wear the papacy’s white cassock.
The pope-emeritus, who referred to himself as “simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth,” is heading off into a near-unprecedented papal retirement. Thursday evening he arrived by helicopter at his new home 15 miles outside Rome. Castel Gandolfo will serve as his residence until renovations are finished at Mater Ecclesiae monastery, inside Vatican City’s walls, which was until recently occupied by a group of cloistered nuns.
Benedict’s future seems stable enough, if not the “papal version of Boca,” as the Post's Jason Horowitz wrote.
But what’s next for the Catholic Church? And when is that secret conclave taking place?
Although he’s being asked constantly, the church’s spokesman is so far staying mum. “I’m asked when it will be 10 times a day, at least,” Lombardi said.
Want to know more about the conclave and the politics of the papacy? Read the latest: After pope’s farewell, attention shifts to conclave