It began with a few words of Latin spoken so quietly and so off-handedly at a church meeting that they were initially missed. But one year ago Tuesday, Pope Benedict set off what would become a historic year in Catholicism by announcing he would retire.
A pope retiring hadn’t happened in centuries and was unexpected — particularly from a man known as the most staunch defender of tradition. Benedict’s decision began a year of unanticipated attention to a church now led by an Argentinian Jesuit who gives interviews to atheists, donates his Harley-Davidson and has thrilled many Catholics and non-Catholics with an approach more focused on mercy than judgment.
Even as the 86-year-old Benedict set this period in motion with his radical decision to step aside (citing fatigue), his is the one voice that has been absent from the year of Pope Francis analysis and this week’s anniversary will be the same. He vowed upon stepping down to be “hidden from the world” so as not to distract from the new pontiff. After all, Catholics have no precedent for dealing with more than one pope at a time.
According to reports from Italy, Benedict lives in a former convent in the Vatican gardens, where he wakes each day at 5:30 a.m., reads, studies, plays piano, receives a few guests and prays. This last task, “is his first and most important,” Benedict’s longtime assistant Archbishop Georg Ganswein told Reuters. He has been photographed only four times in the past year, the report said.
“He is well but certainly he is a person who carries the weight of his years. So, he is a man who is physically old but his spirit is very vivacious and very clear,” Ganswein said.
In retiring, Benedict cited the particular demands of today’s papacy — a 24/7 job merging pastor, CEO and social media celebrity. By doing so, some critics said he’d over-humanized a position that is supposed to be God-picked, framing his decision in pragmatic terms they feared could weaken the concept of pope. Some experts on papal history wonder if the traditionalist may have set his own tradition and if we’ll see more retired popes.