uIncredulous amazement was the reaction almost everywhere when the news broke on February 13, 2013 that Pope Benedict XVI. informed the College of Cardinals in the morning that he would resign from office. The news was initially thought to be a carnival joke, not only in the Rhineland, as it burst on Shrove Monday.
But the first German-speaking pope in almost 500 years was in no mood for joking. The situation of the church seemed so serious to him and his options so limited that he did the unthinkable and, fully aware of the consequences of his decision, was the first pope in living memory to resign his office.
The eighty-five-year-old had survived a trip to Mexico last year in great distress. Intrigue after intrigue had made the Roman Curia appear as a battlefield of countless networks. An investigative report by three cardinals he trusted showed him the Vatican right down to his closest personal circle as a re-enactment of Sodom and Gomorrah. Almost eight years after his election as Pope and a few months after the beginning of the “Year of Faith” he proclaimed, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was at the end of his physical and mental strength – for the time being.
His pontificate had begun under omens that could not have seemed better to many. After the death of John Paul II, which was preceded by a long period of public infirmity, the 115 cardinals with the right to vote quickly agreed on who should be the successor to the Poles, who were shouted “Santo, subito” by parts of the church people. Shortly after 6 p.m. on April 16, 2005, the second day of the conclave, white smoke billowed out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. “Josephum” – the rest of the name, which rang out a few minutes from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, was lost in the cheers of the crowd.
Ratzinger could be sure of his election as Pope
Ratzinger had been aware for weeks that the election would come down to him. A group of 50 to 60 cardinals settled on the longstanding prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith early on, promising Ratzinger theological and church-political continuity. The homily he had given as Dean of the College of Cardinals during the Mass “pro eligendo Papam” was entirely in her spirit.
With a declaration of war on the “dictatorship of relativism” it did not sound like the farewell to a soon to be 78-year-old man who, after more than 23 years in the curia, wanted to resign from all offices and functions in the church. A minority of the cardinals, who did not trust him personally, had no chance – because there was no candidate. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit archbishop of the Argentine capital Buenos Aires, did not accept the role intended for him as an adversary of the German “Panzercardinal”. On April 19, the FAZ published one of the then rare pictures on the front page and the headline: “Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is Benedict XVI.”