Vatican City (dpa/MunichNOW News) – His gesture a year ago shocked the world. Now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is enjoying his retirement, keeping his pledge to “remain hidden to the world,” and leaving the limelight to his successor.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI meets with his brother Monsignor Georg Ratzinger at the Vatican -- photo: dpa
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI meets with his brother Monsignor Georg Ratzinger at the Vatican — photo: dpa

Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria, Germany, announced his resignation – the first by a pope in almost 600 years – on February 11, 2013. He left his post two weeks later, clearing the way for Pope Francis’ election on March 13.

Relieved of the burden of office, Ratzinger “has blossomed again,” his personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, was quoted as saying last week by Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

Benedict, who cited the strains of old age as reason for bowing out, is due to turn 87 on April 16. As pope, he held forth for nearly eight years through a string of scandals, such as the revelations about paedophile priests and the VatiLeaks affair.

He is said to be now spending his days playing Mozart, Bach and Beethoven on the piano, walking, reading the papers, watching the evening news, hosting the occasional guest, as well as studying theology, praying and celebrating mass.

“I see him quite often, we also speak on the phone,” Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was Benedict’s much-criticized second-in-command as the Vatican’s Secretary of State, told the Tgcom 24 broadcaster on Friday.

“The last time was on December 26 … he was in perfect shape, physically and intellectually. Always very sharp and

 "Papst Bier", The beer of the Pope -- photo: dpa
“Papst Bier”, The beer of the Pope — photo: dpa

alert, and still gifted with a formidable memory,” Bertone said.

Benedict is lodged in a four-story convent inside the Vatican gardens, protected from prying eyes by Swiss Guards. He is attended by four female assistants, who also worked for him when he was pope, as well as by Gaenswein and his brother Georg, who just turned 90.

There were fears that the unusual “two popes” situation could have destabilized the Catholic Church, with rival factions rallying around Ratzinger and the Argentine-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio. That scenario never materialized.

Francis has lost no opportunity to pay tribute to his predecessor.

“If I have a difficulty, or something I do not understand, I can call him on the phone: ‘Tell me, can I do this?’,” Francis said in July, describing Benedict as “a wise grandfather.” He also credited him for writing most of his first encyclical, The Light of Faith.

Meanwhile, Benedict has kept a studiously low profile. His only public comments came in September, through a letter to an Italian atheist where he spoke about faith and defended his record against paedophile priests.

“Those who thought that (Benedict and Francis’) cohabitation … would have been a problem underestimated both of them,” church historian Alberto Melloni told dpa.

Speculations about Benedict turning into a “theological watchdog” over the new pope have been “proven completely wrong,” he added, even if “on many subjects, Francis has completely different views from his predecessors.”

“Benedict XVI and John Paul II thought that the church needed to fight as an antagonist” and assert its views on hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion, while Francis has left aside direct confrontation to focus on pastoral care, Melloni said.

With the media-savvy Francis, the Catholic Churh has changed its tone, if not its doctrine, with more emphasis on mercy and compassion. Under Benedict, a first-rate intellectual who suffered from an aloof image, the Vatican was seen as more stern.

But while the current pope inspires hopes of great change, many have suggested that those looking for a real revolutionary should look to Benedict, who, with his surprise resignation, applied the constraints of human frailty to the infallible office of the papacy.

“It is a choice that left a mark on this year and will continue to leave a mark on the Church’s future epochs. Indeed, I think it will have consequences for future pontificates,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in December.

Iacopo Scaramuzzi, one of the few Vatican correspondents who predicted Francis’ election, said Time Magazine should have broadened its horizons when it awarded its “Person of the Year” accolade to Pope Francis.

“Bergoglio is a giant, but there is no doubt that the other man of the year, or rather, of the century, is Joseph ‘Che’ Ratzinger,” he wrote on Twitter, giving Benedict the same middle name as Cuban revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.

By Alvise Armellini