The faithful in all shapes, sizes and colours - including a lederhosen-clad brass band from Bavaria and child pilgrims from Vietnam - were at the Vatican today to see Benedict host his first general audience since he shocked the Catholic World with news he was quitting.
But the atmosphere in the vast concrete Paolo VI Hall in the Vatican City, had — despite the cheers and flag waving, small Mexican waves and occasional bursts of song — an air of forced jollity about it.
Believers thought they ought to be there; students from a Catholic school near Bath helped out with a few verses of Jerusalem. But most were unsure how to react to the news that God’s representative on Earth was taking early retirement.
Emmanuel Ayala, a 25-year-old priest from Mexico, was reluctant to comment on whether the Pontiff was right to standing down. He’d simply say: “It’s very sad and he’s a great man.” A 70-year-old Roman in front of me, Gianfrano Cornacchiolo, was sure, however. “He shouldn’t being going. He should have followed the examples of St Peter.”
When Benedict entered stage-right at 10.40am, the huge hall erupted in cheers. Seated on a white throne, with the oddly nightmarish Fazzini sculpture of the Resurrection behind him, the Pope looked like death warmed up; frail and grey. His tired eyes, appeared focused somewhere else rather than on the crowds in front of him.
In his halting monotone, he intoned the first words of the address. “Dear brothers and sisters as you know,…I have decided to step down for the good of the Church, after praying for a long time and examining my conscience before God…”
Such is the power of faith that believers and non-believers alike witnessed the 85-year-old appear rejuvenated by the cheers and genuine affection present in the hall. He even seemed to be enjoying himself, treating child choirs to little waves of his hand after their brief tributes.
At the end of the audience the black and crimson-robed cardinals approached and greeted the Holy Father one by one. Despite the warm smiles and clasped hands, it was tempting to wonder if one or more of these princes of the church had played the part of Judas in Benedict’s premature departure.
This morning a Portuguese cardinal was reported in La Stampa newspaper as saying the scandal and the presumed power struggles in the Holy See thought by many to lie behind Vatileaks, maybe have influenced Benedict’s decision to quit.
Speaking after the audience, Vatican expert Gerard O’Connell who writes for La Stampa’s Vatican Insider, noted: “The Vatileaks affair was a very personal blow to him. There are unanswered questions about it.” He said the unpublished report on the scandal, which Benedict was privy to, may have further upset the pontiff revealing, as many have speculated, a wider conspiracy against him.
But the coming change – an official and existential one – is not in doubt. At 8pm on Thursday 28th of February, Pope Benedict will cease to be infallible. At 5pm that afternoon he will finish his day’s work at the Vatican and fly by helicopter to the Papal summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, outside Rome. Holy See spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said today that the final couple of hours will be “normal, calm; he’ll have dinner. It will be a simple evening, I think.”
But the curious transformation described by Catholic doctrine has continued to perplex and intrigue the press and public. And his historic decision to quit, despite winning praise from many church figures, continues to raise more questions than answers.