Beyond The Bubble

By Danny Zhang

Pope Benedict XVI, formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, officially leaves his post as the Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church at 2 p.m. EST today, beginning a tumultuous transition in the Vatican during a period of scandal, factionalism and religious decline in modern life.

The Pope announced his surprising resignation on Monday, Feb. 11. He is the first pope to step down from his post since 1415, when Gregory XII abdicated the papacy after the Council of Constance met to resolve the Western Schism, ending a 40-year period of two simultaneous papal claimants in Rome and Avignon.

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to the adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” read the 85-year-old pope’s statement of resignation.

He added that “both strength of mind and body” are necessary for papal leadership and that he “[has] had to recognize [his] incapacity” to fulfill his responsibilities. After today, the pope is expected to lead a more secluded life of “prayer and meditation” in a special Vatican monastery.

At his last Sunday blessing last weekend, more than 100,000 people crowded into St. Peter’s Square to catch a glimpse of the outgoing pontiff. Even though thick grey clouds and a cold drizzle hung over Rome during the morning, patches of blue sky peered through when the pope addressed the crowd. He thanked them for their warm love and support and asked for prayer for the next pope. In an effort to defend his abdication, Benedict vowed to serve the Church “in a way more suitable” to his advanced age and physical condition.

In the crowd on Sunday were flags from all over the world. Pilgrims chanted, “Long live the Pope” and brought banners that read “Thank You,” both in various languages. Benedict made his last public papal appearance yesterday in St. Peter’s Square.

In the last couple of weeks, Italian media networks have been publishing fiery reports of what they claim to be intense internal struggles prior to the upcoming conclave, touching on scandalous topics of child sex abuse within the church and the much-criticized operations of the Vatican Bank.

The reports, mostly based on unnamed sources and, in some cases, pure speculation, have been rebuked forcefully by the Vatican. They accused the news networks of targeting certain figures within the church and trying to influence the papal election, just as cardinals are beginning to gather in Rome for the much-anticipated conclave.

As is the custom with papal conclaves, any cardinal under 80 will be allowed to vote in the election. They will be sequestered in the famous Sistine Chapel until one cardinal obtains a two-thirds majority of all the secret ballots cast. After each round of voting, the ballots are burned and smoke rises out of the chapel. White smoke signals that a new pope has been selected. No official dates have been set yet for the upcoming papal conclave.

A number of cardinals are widely considered strong contenders for the pontiff’s chair, including several non-European cardinals. Among them are Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, the 64-year-old president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace who speaks six languages and is from a region of the world where the Catholic Church is still expanding; and, Cardinal Marc Ouelett of Canada, who served as the former Archbishop of Quebec and heads the powerful Vatican department in charge of bishop appointments. The Cardinal-Archbishop of Milan Angelo Scola is another strong candidate considering the undeniable strength of the Italian wing in the Vatican. Two Latin American cardinals, Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras and Leonardo Sandri, are also in the running, given the strength of the Catholic Church in that increasingly influential region of the world.