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Papal puzzle

Resignation to create unprecedented situation: two pontiffs at Vatican

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in St. Peter's Basilica to celebrate Ash Wednesday mass at the Vatican last week. (Associated Press)
Henry Chu Los Angeles Times

VATICAN CITY – One day soon, perhaps on a fine morning this spring, a new pope strolling through the Vatican’s beautifully tended gardens may run into something that few, if any, of his predecessors ever encountered: another pope.

Technically, of course, there will be only one reigning pontiff, the man elected by the College of Cardinals after Benedict XVI steps down Feb. 28. But some papal aura will no doubt cling to the older, silver-haired former pope, who was deemed God’s chosen representative. And therein may lie a rub.

Benedict’s shocking decision to resign has raised a host of unexpected – and unprecedented – issues, not least the influence that a previous pope could, would or should exercise after his anointed successor is in place.

Moreover, his decision to live out his days within the precincts of the Vatican, in a vacant monastery, makes it highly likely that he and his replacement will literally cross paths, giving rise to a potentially awkward situation.

“It’s the first time in history that we will have inside the Vatican two popes, the old one and the new one,” said Marco Ansaldo, the Vatican correspondent for Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper. “I don’t think that there will be a direct conflict. But the new pope will know that he’s watched by the old one.”

Benedict is the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to resign, and the first in even longer to do so willingly. In many ways, the situation is akin to a constitutional crisis brought on by the abdication of a monarch. There’s no script, no simple protocol. What do you even call the former occupant of the throne – in this case the throne of St. Peter?

The Vatican’s genial spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the retired pope would continue to be known as Benedict XVI and would not return to being a cardinal. “It is difficult to call him cardinal after he was pope,” Lombardi said. All popes are automatically appointed bishop of Rome, and Lombardi said Benedict would become bishop emeritus.

More relevant for the Catholic faithful is whether the new pope’s teaching and authority might somehow be undermined by the very presence of his predecessor, perhaps leading to a dangerous schism.

A few believers and clerics might insist, for example, that Benedict’s vocation as Holy Father, the leader of the flock, is not his to give away, however voluntarily. As Pope Paul VI once put it, paternity cannot be resigned.

“The idea of two popes could be really problematic,” said Antonio Sabetta, a professor at Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.

Sabetta thinks the shy, scholarly Benedict will probably strive to avoid any hint of tension, disagreement or conflict with his successor, both for the good of the church and to allow himself to enjoy a quiet retirement out of the public eye, with his beloved books and pampered cat for company.

“Considering Pope Benedict, who is really interested in studying and praying, I think it won’t be a problem,” Sabetta said. “Pope Benedict is a very humble man. … I think he will almost disappear from the scene.”

After stepping down, Benedict will live temporarily in the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, before he gets himself to a nunnery. Builders are at work now renovating buildings at the monastery that once housed nuns in the Vatican Gardens, which will become his new home.

There’s a private chapel and a patch of soil where the nuns grew citrus trees and roses, according to the Associated Press.

The papal apartment he once occupied will not be far away, but Benedict will settle in, and the Vatican and the Catholic faithful will adjust to the idea of two popes in one place, said John Allen, a veteran Vatican watcher for the National Catholic Reporter.

“I don’t want to diminish the fact that it’s going to be awkward for a while. People are going to need some time,” he said. “But in the long term, people will get their minds around the idea that there’s a new sheriff in town.”

Special correspondent Tom Kington contributed to this report.