The Pope in the Attic: Benedict in the Time of Francis

What’s it like for the first living ex-pope in 600 years to watch from up close as the successor he enabled dismantles his legacy? 
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Señor Salme

These days, he is an autoclaustrato, a self-cloistered contemplative in an order with a membership of one.

His name is still Benedict, 15 months after he renounced the papacy. His clothes are still white, the papal vestments sans cape and sash. His home is now the Mater Ecclesiae, a monastery up on the hill behind St. Peter’s Basilica, erected by John Paul II as a house of prayer near the Apostolic Palace, the site of the papal apartments.

Pope Francis lives only a few hundred meters down the hill, in the Casa Santa Marta: the guesthouse where the cardinals stay while electing a new pope. He arrived there for the conclave of 2013 as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires. After his election, he surprised everyone by taking the name of Francis, the saint of radical simplicity—and then by refusing to move into the palace, and staying on at the guesthouse instead. All the world acclaimed the act as if he had pitched a pup tent in St. Peter’s Square.

Benedict was as surprised as anybody. In a stroke, the Argentine had outdone him in simplicity. Benedict had retired to the summer palace in Gandolfo while the monastery was being renovated, and all at once his retirement appeared to be a life of luxury. When the renovations were complete, he returned to the Sacred City—by helicopter, the way he had departed—and settled himself at the monastery for good.

And so it has come to pass that, in his 88th year, he is living at the Mater Ecclesiae, served by four consecrated laywomen and his priest-secretary, with a piano and a passel of books to keep him occupied. Here he watches the Argentine, prays for him, and keeps silence—a hard discipline for a man who spent his public life defining the nature of God and man, truth and falsehood.

It’s odd enough that there are two living popes. It’s odder still that they live in such proximity. But what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church.

Outwardly, the arrangement works. Francis is acting freely, uninhibited by the fact that Benedict is looking over his shoulder. Benedict is doing what he said he would do: living a quiet life of prayer after 23 years as John Paul’s consigliere capped by eight difficult and divisive years as pope. For the record, he has no regrets. But he is now in a cell of his own making, committed not to travel and pledged not to speak out against his successor. In February of this year, when Francis invited him to take part in a consistory, a Mass in which new cardinals are appointed, the two popes decided together that (as Francis put it about Benedict) “it would be better if he saw people, got out and participated in the life of the Church.” He did take part in the consistory. And yet getting out is no substitute for speaking out, not for the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who corrected even John Paul.

With the press transfixed by Francis, I went to Rome to talk about Benedict. Invariably, the conversations wound up being about both of them. Priests, Church officials, and Vatican insiders told me that the differences between the two men come down to personality, not principle, and that Benedict is delighted with the goodwill the world is showing Francis. He probably is. Yet when he was the arbiter of Church doctrine, he never missed a chance to declare that the Church was founded on revealed truth rather than personality, and that the world’s goodwill isn’t worth having except on the Church’s terms. “Who am I to judge?”—Francis’s remark about gay people—was a sharp turn away from Benedict’s view that the role of the Church is to render judgment in a world in thrall to “a dictatorship of relativism.” Francis’s offhand statements and openness to new approaches make clear that he is a very different pope—and unless Benedict has lost his mind, he cannot be altogether happy about it.

Every Wednesday, the day of his weekly general audience, Pope Francis starts his morning in private prayer and then celebrates Mass in the guesthouse chapel with visiting congregants. After a light breakfast, often with the visitors, he goes to his office, in the Apostolic Palace, not far from the now-vacant papal apartments. For all his simplicity, he is part bureaucrat, an executive at a desk with a computer and a telephone and an aide—Georg Gänswein, the priest whose services he shares with Benedict. There is plenty of paperwork to get through before the audience, which begins at 10:30. “The irony,” a well-placed Jesuit at the Vatican told me, “is that this pope, great agent of decentralization in the Church, is personally the most centralized pope since Pius the Ninth. Everything has to cross his desk.”

Beginning at dawn each Wednesday, tens of thousands of pilgrims gather in St. Peter’s Square, triple the number who used to come to see and hear Benedict. Francis goes to the piazza as early as 9:45, to take a long, slow loop around and through the crowd in the Popemobile. He smiles and waves, clasps hands, and pauses to hug the occasional pilgrim, such as the man, grossly deformed of head and neck, whose embrace with Francis, last November, went viral, a biblical embrace for a digital age.

Francis is acting freely. Benedict is now in a cell of his own making.

He clambers out of the Popemobile and lopes up the broad steps in front of the basilica. The ceremony follows: opening prayer, greetings to pilgrims in half a dozen languages, scripture reading, homily, Our Father, benediction over the pilgrims, and individual greetings for guests in choice seats. The day I was there, a hard rain was falling, but after the audience, Francis took another loop around the crowd in the Popemobile and then alighted under an arch to bless people with disabilities.

Up on the hill, Benedict follows a much lighter regimen. He lives in a bedroom, study, and sitting room on the ground floor of the monastery. He rises at 5:30, half an hour later than he did when he was pope, and begins the day with prayer. He is helped into the white pontifical outfit and handed his cane for the short walk to the chapel. There, at 6, he says Mass for the household: the four consecrated laywomen (Carmela, Rossella, Loredana, and Cristina, middle-aged, in plain skirts and sweaters) and Gänswein, who concelebrates, the first of many times throughout the day when he will place himself at the ex-pope’s side. The chapel might be the chapel at a Catholic high school in Yonkers: beige brick walls, plank pews, standard-issue wooden crucifix. The reforms of Vatican II detached the altar from the back wall in Catholic churches and turned it around so that the priest at Mass faces the people, rather than facing away, as if toward God on their behalf. But here the lace-dressed altar is pushed nearly to the wall, the old-fashioned way. The women, on their knees, contemplate the old man’s back.

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