Exhausted in the Vatican The Final Battles of Pope Benedict XVI
Part 3: Stymied by Vatican Insiders
Ratzinger has only been able to make it through those seven years by making sure he has small escapes. In addition to his everyday duties, he has written books and encyclicals on Christian love ("Deus Caritas Est") and on hope ("Spe Salvi").
Some of his writings have become best-sellers, even in hopelessly secularized Germany. Indeed, this pope has managed to put the Vatican back on the secular world's radar. His encyclicals, his thoughts on reason and faith, and his criticism of the relativism of all values have been closely followed in the press. He has been seen as a pope who understands the zeitgeist.
In fact, the pope's failure to live up to many expectations has actually often benefited the Church. "Christianity, Catholicism, is not a collection of prohibitions; it's a positive option," Benedict said before his trip to Bavaria in 2006. Although he stands behind dogma and pure doctrine, he tries not to alienate anyone, even if he admittedly hasn't always been successful at it. By now, the pope seems about as mild as the Queen of England during his appearances. He knows how to captivate a crowd without spectacular gestures. He has met with Holocaust survivors in Auschwitz, abuse victims in the United States and people with AIDS in Cameroon.
Benedict has understood better than others what the Church's real condition is -- and how far removed it is from his ideal. His stumbling block has always been the Curia. Perhaps the real thing learned over the last seven years is just how powerlessness a pope can be.
Already Searching for a Successor
The pope only wanted to be a "simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord," a "servant of the truth." Now he stands before the reality of his own mortality. For some time, he has been overcome by periods of "deep sadness," says a source close to Benedict, though he notes that it is unclear whether this is merely sadness or genuine depression.
Ratzinger survived two mild strokes in the early 1990s. Both his father and sister died of strokes. The pope takes aspirin as a preventive medicine. He is plagued by osteoarthritis in his knees, especially the right one. Walking is getting more difficult for him, and he now uses a rolling platform, which he mounts upon entering St. Peter's Basilica, such as when he is wearing heavy garments.
He hasn't gone on vacation in the mountains since 2010. Sometimes he takes short walks with his secretary in the Vatican Gardens, where he says the rosary.
In the Curia and the backrooms of the Vatican's palaces, efforts are already underway to search for a successor. The possible outcomes of a conclave are analyzed and candidates are discussed, as was done seven years ago. Some say the next pope should be someone like Pius XII, the pope between 1939 and 1958 who was a calculating and predictable power player and Vatican insider. Or someone like Paul VI, the pope from 1963 to 1978, who paid attention to the Curia's interests. The name of Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, has been mentioned, as has that of Leonardo Sandri, an Argentine cardinal with Italian roots. Another possible candidate is Curia Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture and one of the few Vatican insiders who is adept at handling the media, politics and the public.
The Italians, with 30 votes, still form the largest bloc in a conclave. Some believe that, after more than 33 years of foreign dominance -- first by a Pole and then by a German -- it's high time to elect an Italian pope. After all, proponents of the idea argue, an Italian cardinal knows the Roman Curia best. But the Italians' prospects have become slim since Vatileaks, says Vatican expert Marco Politi. "If the scandal has exposed one thing, it is the typical Italian mess. Italians are no longer seen as papabile (capable of becoming pope). They have discredited themselves with their power struggle."
Last Days and Legacies
Benedict himself knows that he doesn't have much time left. "The last segment of my life is now beginning," he told birthday guests in April.
In fact, his planning hardly goes past next July, when he will attend the Catholic "World Youth Day" in Rio de Janeiro. Healing the rift with the SSPX will be at the top of his agenda in the coming weeks, in addition to admonishing feuding groups to exercise mutual respect.
With the dispute that has erupted over the assessment of the reforms of Vatican II, which began 50 years, the pope is now experiencing a return to his own past. Will the once liberal-minded and now conservative pastor find the strength to foster reconciliation at the end of his life? To blaze some middle path between tradition and modernity for the world's 1.2 billion Catholics?
"Stalin was right in saying that the pope has no divisions and cannot issue commands," Benedict said in the 2010 book-length interview "Light of the World." "Nor does he have a big business in which all the faithful of the Church are his employees or his subordinates. In that respect, the pope is, on the one hand, a completely powerless man. On the other hand, he bears a great responsibility."
Benedict has always seen himself as a teaching rather than a governing pontiff. The professor-pope from the small Bavarian village of Marktl am Inn will undoubtedly not go down in the annals of Church history as Benedict the Great.
But he will be remembered as a church leader with a human face, as someone who has remained true to himself as a theologian, and as someone who turned his back on the power within his own four walls. In other words, as a pope with a lower-case p.
You can follow Peter Wensierski on Twitter @wensierski.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan