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.
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.
Breakfast follows in the refectory: bread, jam, fruit, and juice, the women bustling reverently around him. John Paul had a Clinton-style appetite for groups of people with himself at the center, and during his pontificate, his priest-secretary arranged for guests as a matter of course. “Benedict cut that right off,” a Vatican insider told me. “He was taking his meals more or less alone even when he was pope—when he was the pope.”
He goes to his study, reads the morning papers, writes a letter or two. He is retired from authorship—too old, Gänswein has said, to write a whole book. Some people say that his retirement began when he was elected pope. As early as 1985, while serving as prefect, he told an interviewer that “if Providence will some day free me of my obligations,” he would devote himself to a scholarly book about original sin. Twice he submitted his resignation; twice John Paul refused it. In 2000, with the pope’s health failing, he stepped in, running the Church from his desk in the Sacred Palace and insisting that John Paul would never resign. He was elected dean of the College of Cardinals in 2002, and three years later he oversaw John Paul’s funeral and the subsequent conclave, where he was elected pope. He was exhausted when he took office. A joke making the rounds in Rome these days goes like this: Question: Is Benedict interfering in Church governance? Answer: Are you kidding? He didn’t interfere even when he was pope!