VATICAN CITY — Inside the grand Tuscan colonnades of St. Peter’s Square, a light drizzle fell on a Tuesday that seemed all too ordinary, given the momentous events a day earlier. Rowdy Chinese tour groups followed their guides’ flags. A few long-frocked priests hurried to seminary classes. Among the sparse crowds, a cluster of Spanish kids in ripped T-shirts lazily munched on panini near the Vatican obelisk.
But just as on Monday — when Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign — there was no massive outpouring here. At least some measure of that is expected when the pontiff celebrates his final Mass on Wednesday, and especially on Feb. 27, when he gives his official farewell from St. Peter’s. Yet the subdued response, many here said, is perhaps fitting for a spiritual guide who is loved by many in the church but who, some said, never fully connected with his broader flock.
On global tours he drew crowds but not the adoring masses that turned out for John Paul II. His photo hung in churches and religious classrooms worldwide, but, seen as shy and intellectual, he seemed distant to at least some of his faithful. In a world used to folksy speeches, Benedict delivered his resignation in Latin.
Still, there is no script for this — no modern precedent for how to respond when a pope departs St. Peter’s throne by choice as opposed to the ultimate calling. On Tuesday, Catholics visiting the Vatican seemed to echo the broader sentiments of deep respect for Benedict, if not the unbridled devotion enjoyed by his predecessor.
“The pope said as much after his trip to Sydney in 2008,” said Giovanni Maria Vian, editor in chief of L’Osservatore Romano, the semi-official newspaper of the Holy See. “He said, ‘I am not a rock star.’ Of course he is loved. But he is not a rock star.”
More details about Benedict’s decision emerged Tuesday. The 85-year-old pope had decided to resign as far back as April, after he returned from an official trip to Cuba feeling absolutely spent, Vian said. Vatican officials also confirmed that the pope was fitted with a pacemaker a decade ago and that three months ago he had a follow-up procedure to install new batteries. But officials said his heart condition did not contribute to his decision to resign because of a more general decline in health.
There were words of admiration Monday as the pope’s decision was announced. But a few also reflected on the potentially major implications of his resignation for the papacy. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera quoted Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, former personal secretary to John Paul II, as saying that pontiff chose to stay on until the very end because he believed that “one does not step down from the cross.” But he added that he wasn’t criticizing Benedict, saying, “Both of them had a great charisma, and a great role for the church and for humanity.”
As the German-born Benedict serves his final weeks, Catholics here and around the world are already talking about the selection of a new pope. Ramon Echavarria, a 49-year-old Mexican businessman on vacation with his wife and two daughters, pointed at the rainbow of races flowing in and out of St. Peter’s Basilica on Tuesday and said: “Maybe the time has come for someone who is more representative of who Catholics are today. How many German Catholics are left? How many are there in Europe? I will respect whoever they pick, but they should think about where the church is growing.”
From Brazil to Nigeria, India to South Korea, calls were growing for a choice that would underscore the geographic shift of the Roman Catholic church to the developing world. Though that shift is already underway in the elite College of Cardinals, with the number from outside Europe growing substantially under Benedict, the group’s makeup still does not reflect the church’s swing to the south. Spain, an increasingly secular nation with roughly 34 million Catholics, has 10 cardinals, for instance, while Brazil, a nation with more than 133 million Catholics, has nine.
The Rev. Daniel Mkado, editor of the Seed, a Catholic magazine in Nairobi, said the surge of Catholicism in Africa has fueled hopes there of the first black pope.
“Africa is the land of the Catholic faith,” he said. “Maybe having a pope from Africa could show the maturity of the church here. This continent has been thought of to be a dead continent by the international media, thought of to be filled with war, famine and bad things. I believe that an African pope could show it to be associated with faith instead.”
Yet, for liberal Catholics who chafed at the conservative views promoted by Benedict, issues of geography and race seem less important than doctrine. Jennifer Stahlbaum, a 41-year-old from Sacramento who was visiting St. Peter’s with a friend, said she had little hope for change. She noted that during his tenure, Benedict promoted many new cardinals who share his strict traditionalist approach to the church, effectively stacking the deck against the election of a reformist leader. In fact, many of the church’s most conservative cardinals now hail from Latin America and Africa.
“I don’t think it matters where the next pope is from,” Stahlbaum said. “What matters is the type of pope we have. This pope held the church back on issues of homosexuality, on women, while other faiths were modernizing. To be honest, I don’t see that changing with the next pope, no matter where he comes from.”