A Unique Farewell to Pope Benedict XVI

The pope's helicopter flies past St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City as Benedict heads into retirement.

The pope’s helicopter flies past St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City as Benedict heads into retirement.

As the sun set in Rome Thursday, so did Pope Benedict XVI’s reign over the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.

It was oddly captivating to watch this man’s journey into retirement.

Certainly none of us on this mortal planet have ever witnessed a pope opt out prior to his expiration.

You would have to go back 600 years to find the last instance when a pope retired. It was the year 1415, which is 77 years before Christopher Columbus even discovered the New World.

Prior to his departure from the Vatican, Benedict, 85, met with his cardinals one last time to urge them to work in unity as they selected his successor, and pledged his “unconditional reverence and obedience” to what will be the 266th pope.

Pope Benedict XVI.

Pope Benedict XVI

Benedict then greeted more than 100,000 people in St. Peter’s Square for one last official address, and thanked the faithful for their support, telling well-wishers that he was beginning the final stage of his life as “simply a pilgrim.”

Tears were seen streaming down countless faces as the pontiff boarded an Italian government helicopter to make the brief journey to Castel Gandolfo, the traditional papal summer residence, located 15 miles south of Rome.

Bells chimed in tribute at the Vatican, an honor usually reserved for the selection of a new pope, as Benedict flew above Rome’s skyline.

Crowds quickly became visible on rooftops as the news coverage followed the pope aloft, where signs bid “His Holiness” wishes of thanks and farewell.

Seeing the city this way and the events unfolding made me think about what might be comparable by American standards, but there is nothing. The United States is just too damn young.

New York City, if I was being generous, is 389 years old (settled in 1624 as a trading post).

The Colosseum.

The Colosseum.

They have coffee older than that in Rome.

It’s the birthplace of western civilization, and dates to 753 BC.

That’s 2,377 years before New York City was a wet dream.

I thought it made for an interesting juxtaposition, that as soon as the pope’s journey ended, the remainder of the day in America was spent worrying about “budgetary sequestration” due to gridlocked government.

The U.S. is only 237 years old. Have we already seen our apex and are in decline?

It’s hard to imagine what America might look like in 2,000 years – but Rome has already come all that way.

The Vatican, the Colosseum, and Rome’s densely populated metropolis gave the day’s papal events a sense of time and propriety.

Castel Gandolfo.

Castel Gandolfo.

Bells tolled anew in Castel Gandolfo, where the central piazza was jammed with people hoping to catch a final glimpse of Benedict as pope.

From his balcony, the holy man in residence, already looking slightly relieved, told the roaring crowd how joyful this day was, and that he was happy to be “surrounded by the beauty of the Creator.”

Until his private residence is completed on the Vatican grounds, Benedict will stay in this hilltop fortification that overlooks Lake Albano.

Back at the Vatican, attention now shifts to debating the resigned pontiff’s legacy and selecting his replacement, as Benedict leaves in his wake a church internally divided and mired in controversy.

Many have voiced there was a lack of governance under Benedict, and that he never grew comfortable with the specter of power that came from being the pope.

He certainly was not prepared to handle the Roman Catholic clergy’s sex abuse scandal.

Benedict's helicopter as it departs Vatican City Thursday.

Benedict’s helicopter as it departs Vatican City Thursday.

While it may have been embarrassing for Benedict to learn of these graphic abuses, and certainly uncomfortable to address those responsible in his church, all of that pales in comparison to those that were innocent victims of these supposed role models.

Instead of showing contrition or sympathy, Benedict chose to lower his head and implement a more conservative doctrine, hoping that its interpretation would signify sorrow.

This was neither effective nor sufficient.

There also was the Vatican documents scandal, where the leaking of sensitive documents exposed power struggles and allegations of corruption inside the Vatican.

In fact on the last day of Benedict’s papacy, the Vatican confirmed reports that it had ordered wiretaps on the phones of some Vatican officials as part of the leaks investigation.

I am not Catholic, nor am I a big fan of organized religion. It operates on a profit margin and has a story to sell, especially to the downtrodden that seek explanation and comfort.

There are few organizations that have perpetrated more heinous acts than those attributed to the church.

Under God’s name the flock has been fleeced, people have been unjustly persecuted, many have been killed, and wars waged.

Now the Catholic Church is associated with terms like sexual predator, pedophile, conspiracy, coercion, and obstruction of justice.

When I hear the word religion it’s hard not to immediately associate the word hypocrisy soon after.

At its core I think religion is a positive concept, but the institution fears a loss of power, and certainly the loss of money, and worries about becoming marginalized.

It should come as no surprise that the church would say anything, and fight violently in order to survive.

A cardinal arrives at the Vatican Monday to begin the work of electing a new pope.

A cardinal arrives at the Vatican Monday to begin the process of nominating a new pope.

The cardinals began meeting today at the Vatican, where they are expected to spend a week getting to know one another better and becoming comfortable with each others’ company.

The expectation is that a papal conclave will be called by the College of Cardinals next week in order to elect a new Bishop of Rome.

As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”

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