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.
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!
When he was a cardinal, Benedict envisioned a smaller, more cohesive Church. At the monastery, he has his wish. Churchmen and devotees make their way up the hill in twos and threes. Cardinal Müller comes, walking over from the Sacred Palace, where he runs the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. So does Cardinal Meisner, just retired from his post in Cologne. So does Manuel Herder, the publisher of Benedict’s collected works in Freiburg. So does Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, who once brought the other bishops of Austria with him. German is spoken. New books from the homeland are presented. Noon prayers are said. Lunch is served, and il Papa emerito is left to nap.
Some people at the Vatican pity Benedict, the scholar whose lot it was to fall between the rock stars John Paul and Francis. But he has never sought worldly renown. He envisions a different legacy. “He’d like to be a Doctor of the Church,” a chronicler of Benedict’s papacy told me, “with Augustine and Aquinas, Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross.” With that in mind, he spends part of the day buffing his collected writings, which will run to 16 volumes. That he has written so much works against his hope to be read in the future. “Ratzinger’s natural form is the essay, not the book,” the well-placed Jesuit said. The nearest thing to a Ratzinger classic is Introduction to Christianity, which he published in 1968, before the events of the late ’60s sent him round the neotraditionalist bend. Benedict broke his self-imposed silence last year to defend his book, and his reputation, after an Italian mathematician and outspoken atheist, Piergiorgio Odifreddi, in 2011 addressed a short book to him (Dear Pope, I’m Writing to You) and used examples from Introduction to Christianity to argue that religion is just “science fiction.” Benedict read the book and took up his pen. “Distinguished Professor,” he began, and went on for 11 pages, challenging Odifreddi’s account of theology, evolution, Richard Dawkins’s work, and much else. “My criticism of your book is, in part, tough,” he concluded. “However, frankness is part of a dialogue … You have been very frank and so you will accept that I am, too.”
Odifreddi sought Benedict’s permission to publish excerpts in La Repubblica, one of Rome’s daily papers. Benedict asked Francis—who said sure, fine. “He’s ever the efficient scholar, getting that corrective letter out,” says Robert Mickens, who covers the Vatican for The Tablet, a Catholic weekly. “But breaking his silence to defend a book he wrote 50 years ago? That’s rich.”
One afternoon not long ago, as Rome opened again after the midday pause, Benedict received a visitor. It was Francis. They embraced. They knelt together in the chapel, two old men in white robes. They sat and talked, attended by Gänswein.
Benedict: “Now I am a claustrato”—a cloistered one.
Gänswein: “You’re an autoclaustrato.”
Francis: “But you can go out if you want to.”
The Vatican press office releases photographs of their encounters, intending to show that Benedict and Francis get on, but the pictures have the effect of suggesting something else: that the two popes’ coming together is a special occasion. In a way, it is. Last summer, an American scholar was part of a delegation going to meet Francis when word came for the group to halt: the other pope was in the palace.
Most afternoons, Benedict passes the hours at the monastery. He turns the pages of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. He sits at the piano and plays a little Mozart. If he’s feeling strong, he gets suited up (white quilted down jacket, white baseball cap, cane) and walks gingerly through the gardens to the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. Gänswein protects him from the elements, as needed, with a giant white umbrella. When Pius XII was pope, in the mid-20th century, the men who tended the Vatican gardens were told to hide behind a bush if they saw him approaching during his strolls. Benedict’s need for solitude is not so great, but Gänswein is on the lookout for paparazzi who might be trying to get a shot of the enfeebled ex-pope.
Often, there is music: on the piano, on the stereo, or played by musicians brought in for a command performance. One day, a pair of German pianists came and played works for four hands. Another time, Gänswein arranged a chamber-music recital in the Collegio Teutonico, down the hill, where Ratzinger used to celebrate Mass with students. Last year, when Benedict’s older brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, a church music director in Regensburg, was approaching 90, colleagues planned a birthday concert there. Then Benedict renounced the papacy, and the concert was moved to the Sacred City. At a Vatican Radio studio near the monastery, the two brothers (the elder, wearing black, in a wheelchair; the younger, wearing white, stooped in his seat) heard the Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green, a trained classical pianist, play Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Liszt’s “Sposalizio,” and an intermezzo by Brahms. “I was speechless,” Green said. “I prayed at the grotto beforehand.”
Supper is light, generally soup and a side dish. Ever since he was a cardinal, Benedict has watched the nightly news at 8, and some say the anguish of seeing the telegiornale reports of a leak of documents by his butler spurred him to resign. His resignation in turn led to reports that he had been forced to step down by hard-charging cardinals who were threatening to reveal backstairs sexcapades in the palace. These days, though, the news from the Vatican is all Francis.
At 10, the ex-pope is undressed. Before retiring, he prays—and so the day ends in the way it began, with the old man of faith placing himself before God and asking for guidance.
John Paul and Benedict led the Church for 35 years. Decade after decade, they opposed the currents in modern life that they felt progressive Catholics were falsely identifying with the “spirit of Vatican II”: movements in favor of women’s rights, gay rights, and heterodox family arrangements, and against religious freedom and robust religion in public life. They appointed the cardinals who would elect their successors. All their striving seemed to work: By the time Benedict became pope, progressive Catholics were cowering. The truths of orthodoxy and the findings of sociology had converged; the religious bodies that espoused the firmest doctrines and made the strictest demands on their adherents were those that gained the most followers.
Carlo Maria Martini saw things differently. A Jesuit priest and a biblical scholar, Martini was an outlier, even after John Paul appointed him as the archbishop of Milan. When in Rome, he worked with the poor and celebrated Mass on the city’s outskirts. He published a dialogue with Umberto Eco (identified as an “urbane ex‑Catholic”). He sought ways to address such matters as premarital sex and divorce. At the 2005 conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger as pope, Martini got nine votes on the first ballot, or scrutiny, behind Ratzinger (who got 47) and the Argentine Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio (10). In the second scrutiny, after a night of politicking at the Casa Santa Marta, Martini’s votes all passed to Bergoglio.
Like John Paul, Martini suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Shortly before he died, in 2012, at the age of 85, he gave an interview to a fellow Jesuit. “The Church is tired, worn out in bourgeois Europe and America,” he said. “Our culture has aged, our churches and monasteries are big and empty, the Church bureaucracy is bloated, our rites and vestments are pompous … Prosperity drags us down.” He called for “the pope and the bishops to seek out 12 people from outside the system for administrative positions, people … who will try new things.” He called on the Church to open itself to nontraditional families and poor people. He took the long view. “The Church,” he said, “is 200 years behind the times.”
At the conclave of 2013, Bergoglio was elected pope—and if his pontificate has an agenda, it is the one Martini spelled out from his deathbed. Did Benedict see this coming? Assuredly not. In 2005, Martini, at 78, was considered too old to be elected. It would follow that in 2013, Bergoglio, at 76, should have also been considered too old. But Benedict’s renunciation changed the calculus. Now no older man can be ruled out. Now an older man can be elected pope and work hard for a few years, knowing he is free to resign when his energy flags or when he reckons that he has done all he can.
That’s what Francis is doing—and Benedict knows, better than anybody, that his renunciation of the papacy is what made Francis’s freestyle, judgment-averse pontificate possible. The thought is enough to keep him awake at night. For it is his firm belief that the willingness to suspend judgment is the core of the dictatorship of relativism.
Cardinal Walter Kasper—short, sturdy, 81—lives at No. 1 Piazza della Città Leonina, a brick apartment building near the old Vatican walls, steps from the papal apartments. The building is populated by cardinals and archbishops, a celibates’ fraternity house.
Kasper is a theologian from Germany who, in Rome, led the Catholic Church’s efforts toward unity with other Christian Churches and amity with Judaism. The press calls him “Kasper the Friendly Cardinal,” and when he smiles from behind rimless glasses, you can see why. His apartment is simple but comfortable, Upper West Side bourgeois: leather furniture, framed art, a stereo, a laptop open on a side table, and two full walls of shelved books.
When he was a cardinal, Ratzinger lived in a similar apartment directly above (and disturbed the peace with his piano). Now Cardinal Kasper is having the retirement that Cardinal Ratzinger, pre-papacy, yearned to have. He makes his own schedule. He reads and writes. He goes to receptions and other events around Rome. He travels to Germany and America. He meets the press whenever he likes; he speaks his mind.
I asked Kasper about his old neighbor. “It’s difficult to be a retired professor,” he said, “and more difficult in his way. He cannot do the normal things. He cannot take a walk. He cannot publish a book. He must be very discreet.”
What about Benedict and Francis? Did he see Rolling Stone’s cover story about Francis, in which Benedict was caricatured as a maniac torturing young people with “knife-fingered gloves”? “Everyone wants to say how different Francis is,” Kasper said, sighing, and then went on to make the familiar point about the two men’s temperaments. But the difference between the two popes has to do with doctrine as well as temperament—especially one doctrine that Kasper, in a very visible dispute with Ratzinger, spelled out better than anybody else. It concerned what exactly the pope is. Kasper argued that the pope is chiefly the bishop of Rome: eminent, yes, but one bishop among many. Ratzinger argued that the pope is a super-bishop of sorts, whom the other bishops must follow as a sign of Church unity.
Before the conclave of 2005, Kasper, speaking at the ancient basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, called for a new pope who would not be leery of the world. People took this as a warning against Ratzinger. The next day Ratzinger gave his speech to the cardinals about the dictatorship of relativism. He was elected pope. The super-bishop had won, or so it seemed. But Pope Francis has taken Kasper’s side in the dispute. He has appointed a group of eight cardinal advisers; the bishop of Rome now consults with his fellow bishops from around the world. And by making clear that the Church—and the papacy—must change with the times, he is putting a stop to John Paul and Benedict’s long effort to make Church doctrine an adamantine bulwark against relativism. When some 200 cardinals came to Rome for the February consistory, he chose Kasper to preach the keynote homily to them.
In our interview, Kasper spoke at length about the two popes. “There are real convergences between them,” he said. “Benedict sought to reform the Curia, and now Francis seeks to reform the Curia. But certainly there is more collegiality under Francis, more emphasis on the local church. And other changes. The red slippers: ridiculous, ridiculous! Now all of the cardinals are wearing simple crosses. These changes are irreversible.” He went on: “They have different ways of reading the signs of the times. Benedict is good with ideas, but he had poor judgment of people. Francis knows people, how they think. He took the city bus in Buenos Aires. He calls people on the phone. He uses the computer. But Benedict, he doesn’t drive”—here the Friendly Cardinal grasped an imaginary steering wheel. “He doesn’t do Internet”—here he pointed at his laptop. “He is not … normal! Francis, he is normal!”
The autoclaustrato is not a simple man of prayer any more than he is a simple retiree. Certain Catholics who object to the direction in which Francis is taking the Church now look to Benedict, the pope on the hill, as their standard-bearer. They are the seminarians with crew cuts striding in groups around Rome, cassocks swishing at their ankles. They are the devotees of the Latin Mass and the advocates of reunion with the fascist-friendly schismatics of the Society of St. Pius X. They are the followers of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia—a conservative who, as a rule, speaks warmly about Francis, but who said that “the right wing … generally have not been really happy” with Francis and that “we should look at him after a year,” which his followers have interpreted as signs that there is daylight between Francis and a silent majority in the hierarchy. They are the free-market evangelists who champion the pope as an agent of “evangelical Catholic reform” but dismiss his comments about income inequality as a Latin American cliché.
For the past 35 years, progressive Catholics have felt thwarted. Now it’s the traditionalists’ turn. “Benedict was like a father to them,” the well-placed Jesuit at the Vatican told me. “No, he was a father to them. Now they are fatherless.” Benedict’s courageous act of renunciation, they feel, wasn’t supposed to turn out this way—not when the fight for the Church had finally been won. They are vexed by the thought that the change is irreversible, that the doors John Paul and Benedict strove to push closed—on sexuality, the ordination of women, the authority of the pope—will now stay open.
A woman in Rome told me about a dinner party shortly after Francis’s election, where she was seated next to Cardinal Raymond Burke, the American archconservative who is the prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s supreme court. Her husband was gravely ill, and she told Burke so, expecting consolation. She got something else. “These are difficult times for all of us in the Church right now,” he said.
Vatican insiders tell the story of an Italian vaticanista, or full-time Vatican correspondent, who is still agitated over Francis’s behavior at a papal audience with several thousand members of the international press shortly after he was elected. Acknowledging that many of the men and women at the event were not Catholics, Francis gave a blessing “respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God.” The vaticanista took that to mean that what a person believes doesn’t really matter. “What kind of fucking apostolic blessing is that?” she said, according to another vaticanista, who summed up the objection this way: “If this pope gives a blessing like that, he’s not taking the papacy seriously. So we’re not going to take him seriously.”
The traditionalists have had enough, it is said, and they’re going to press their case. But there’s no sign that Francis will accommodate them. “Francis knows exactly how power is spelled,” says Bernd Hagenkord, a Jesuit who is in charge of German programming for Vatican Radio. “He’s a communicator in the league with Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. They say he’s being unclear, but we know exactly what he means.”
On Friday nights, the Vatican is the loneliest place in Rome. The basilica is closed. The museum is closed. The pilgrim houses on the periphery of the Sacred City have shut their doors and served their suppers. The staff has gone home, save a few Swiss guards and sleepy porters. It feels like the Notre Dame campus during winter break, when the Golden Domers have left Indiana and scattered to the ends of the Earth.
That’s how it felt one Friday night, at any rate, when a Vatican official took me on a quick drive-by tour of the restricted territory behind St. Peter’s, where two popes now live. We rode past the Sacred Palace and the Collegio Teutonico. The Casa Santa Marta was lit up, for reasons of prestige or security or both. It wasn’t hard to picture Pope Francis inside, drowsing before the Blessed Sacrament, as he is wont to do. For all his vitality, he is neither fit nor young.
A guard waved us past the palace known as the Governorato, the seat of the Vatican City State, and we drove alongside the gardens to the monastery up on the hill, where, it was easy to imagine, the ex-pope was absorbed in prayer, asking God whether resigning had been the right thing to do.
What are you doing with me? So runs his prayer as he turns to God, as he has turned to God in the night ever since his boyhood in Bavaria—and God always wants more, asks more. God asks, and Benedict answers, the way he has done in three book-length interviews he has granted to friendly journalists over the years. God asked him to serve 23 years in the doctrinal office, and he served. God asked him to be pope, and he became pope, making the ruby slippers fit. God asked him to resign, and he resigned, risky as it was. Now God is asking him for more once again—is asking him to be forbearing with this man whose path to the papacy he made possible. He likes Bergoglio. Daily his appreciation for the Argentine grows. What the man can do with a smile, a gesture; what he is doing to put the name of the Lord on the lips of the peoples of the world: all remarkable. Truly, the Spirit is in him. How else could he be so simple in Peter’s shoes? And yet the Argentine’s simplicity will not be easy to sustain. In the high noon of the new man’s pontificate, the difficulties will come to light. Reform of the Curia: God knows, he sought it himself. May Bergoglio succeed where he did not, but true reform is never easy or popular. The situation of the person who has rejected God: certainly, God is present in that person, as Bergoglio says, but if God is fully present in such a person, where is the need for the redemption that God became man to achieve? What about the teachings entrusted to the Church regarding the sanctity of marriage? Certainly the Church should not speak of such matters obsessively, as Bergoglio says—but is it not the world that is obsessed, granting to people who are not made for each other a simulacrum of true marriage? And carnal relations among people of the same sex: that these are disordered is a judgment as old as the papacy. “Who am I to judge?” Who, indeed? It is not a simple matter; it cannot be. In the end there is a need to judge and be judged, is there not? We are, he and I, successors to Peter, keeper of the keys to the kingdom. Who will judge, if not us?
On April 27, a different pair of popes will be canonized in a grand Mass in Rome: John XXIII, the simple and crafty “good Pope John,” who convened the Second Vatican Council, and John Paul II, who sought at once to fulfill the council’s message of global brotherhood through his travels and to stifle the changes it set in motion. Several million people will converge on Rome, and the two living popes are expected to concelebrate the Mass in St. Peter’s Square. It is likely to be a day of solemn religious spectacle surpassing any since the funeral for John Paul, in 2005, which was overseen by Cardinal Ratzinger, soon to be Pope Benedict; and it is likely to be a day of spectacle such as Benedict will not see again.
Unless he is called out of the Mater Ecclesiae to preside over another funeral for a pope. What if, in a Church with two popes, the one in the Casa Santa Marta dies first? When John Paul’s health was waning, people would ask him how they could carry on his legacy. “How do you know that I will die first?,” the old warrior would jibe. Sure enough, John Paul outlasted friend and foe, mindful that it was the sudden death of a pope—John Paul I, who died after a month in office in 1978—that led to his own election, and mindful that he had lived out his marathon papacy only after surviving an assassin’s bullet, in 1981. A third of a century after the death of the first John Paul, people in Rome still bat around the notion that he was done in—poisoned—by enemies of reform. It is never far from the thoughts of the people who look after Francis that his openness to the world—the embraces, the selfies, the spontaneous encounters with ordinary people—makes him a target.
Francis seems untroubled by this prospect. He is spurred to act boldly in part by the prospect of his own imminent demise. He knows, on the one hand, that he need not remain pope until he dies; and he knows, on the other, that the powerful people who oppose him need not wait for his death to press a counterreformation. What they know, and what he knows, is that he is not alone: the other pope remains on the hill, watching.