The pope in retirement: What to expect

Updated 11:39 AM EST, Thu February 28, 2013

Story highlights

Vatican says he will keep the name Benedict XVI and still be addressed as "his holiness"

He will first leave Rome to go to the papal seaside retreat until successor is named

Benedict has said he will devote his life to prayer.

Benedict was unable to stop growing secularism in Europe and U.S., though he often railed against it

Don’t expect a lot of shuffleboard games for the soon-to-be former Bishop of Rome, Successor of St. Peter, Head of the College of Bishops, Vicar of Christ, and Pastor of the Universal Church: Pope Benedict XVI.

On Thursday, at 8 p.m. in Rome, Benedict will become the first retired pontiff in 600 years. And with no modern guides, everything he does will be pioneering for a 21st century papal retiree.

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The leader of 1.2 billion Catholics around the globe will leave his seat at the ornate Apostolic Palace and retire to a former gardener’s house at the Vatican to lead a life of prayer, likely removed entirely from public life.

The Vatican said Tuesday he will keep the name Benedict XVI and still be addressed as “his holiness.” He will also be known as pope emeritus, emeritus pope or Roman pontifex emeritus. He will forego his ornate papal wardrobe and elbow-length cape, called a mozzetta, for a simple white cassock. He also will retire his red shoes in favor of a brown pair picked up on his trip to Mexico last year.

The 85-year-old will first leave Rome to go to the papal seaside retreat, Castle Gandolfo, until a successor is named. Then he will head to the Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church) building, which formerly housed a cloistered convent in the Vatican gardens.

While “convent” or “monastery,” as officials have been calling it, may be the right name for the former home of a group of cloistered nuns tasked with prayer for the pope, the space does not have the long stone-arched hallways and massive common areas evoked by such terms.

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The pope’s new home

“It used to be the gardener’s house,” Sister Ancilla Armijo said. “It’s just a small house. What they added was just a library for the sisters and a new chapel.”

Armijo is a nun in the Benedictine Order at the Abbey of St. Walburga in Colorado, not far from the Wyoming border. From October 7, 2004, to October 7, 2009, she and six other Benedictine sisters from around the world lived in Mater Ecclesiae praying for the pope, first for an ailing Pope John Paul II and then all the way through to the election and papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.

Armijo joined the order in 1972 at the age of 16. She said joining a cloistered group of international nuns on the Vatican grounds was unique.

Catholic population in numbers
Catholic population in numbers
Catholic population in percentages
Catholic population in percentages

While the house has a sense of being removed from the Vatican, she said it provides views of the papal apartment, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.

“We felt connected to the Vatican itself,” she said, although “it’s not like there’s any access to the Vatican itself, the main buildings or anything like that.”

Catholic population in numbers
Catholic population in numbers
Catholic population in numbers
Catholic population in numbers
Catholic population in percentages
Catholic population in percentages
Catholic population in percentages
Catholic population in percentages

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The Mater Ecclesiae is “very small” and “very hot,” she said. “There’s no trees shading it. I think it’ll work for him if they have air conditioning for him. They’ll have to remodel the kitchen and things like that because it was so simple.”

While she lived there, bars adorned the windows and separated the nuns from their visitors in the meeting room, in keeping with a cloistered, set-apart lifestyle.

When Benedict arrives he can stroll the private courtyard and take in the perfumed aroma from the 15 or so John Paul II rose bushes, a white-petaled flower cultivated in honor of his predecessor. Armijo said a group donated the rose bushes to the Vatican in honor of the late pontiff. Benedict gave them to the sisters to grow. Every two weeks they sent a bouquet up to the papal residence.

In the gardens, Armijo said, Benedict can also find lemon and orange trees in addition to a small vegetable garden used by the house for meals.

The monastery, when Armijo lived there, had a few bedrooms, a kitchen, a living area, a library and a chapel. The walls were plain and whitewashed. It does not bear the artistic treasures other parts of the Vatican hold, like Michelangelo’s masterworks the Pieta sculpture in St. Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or the massive Last Judgment painting above the altar in the Sistine Chapel.

“The only real piece of art is in the chapel. It has a beautiful bronzed life-sized crucifix,” Armijo said.

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A life of prayer

In the chapel the pope might say Mass every day for his small household, said Monsignor Rick Hilgartner, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Divine Worship.

Benedict has said he will devote his life to prayer. There is no playbook for the life of prayer for a retired pope, Hilgartner said. “Nothing beyond the normal routine” for a monk or a priest.

He said that would include “prayer throughout the day and the liturgy of the hours, morning prayer, evening prayer, Mass every day.”

Benedict is likely to keep a small staff at the house to tend to his needs. “He has some German sisters” – nuns – “who cared for him in his domestic needs at the Apostolic Palace and they’re apparently moving with him to this monastery. So he’ll provide for their spiritual needs, saying Mass every day,” Hilgartner said.

There may be a stipend for the retired pope. Italian news outlets have reported retired clerics receive up to €2,500 a month. Hilgartner said Benedict won’t need much money if any at all. The Vatican will take care of his lodging and his health care.

“He didn’t have a pension because the presumption was he would be in office until he died,” Hilgartner said. “His needs will be cared for. Because of the way he’ll be living, those needs will be somewhat limited.”

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Back to the books

Benedict, a theologian by training, is likely to switch from universal pastor back to scholar.

“My sense is that he will lay low out of deference to the new pope, that he will stay out of the way and under the radar,” Hilgartner said. He expects the pope to behave mostly like a retired scholar, doing lots of reading and maybe a little writing.

Benedict was rumored to be working on his fourth encyclical before he announced he would resign, Hilgartner said. Encyclicals are papal letters to the church, often on pressing matters that carry the weight of the office the pope with them.

“He had written the encyclical on hope, the encyclical on love, and another one on social justice and charity,” Hilgartner said, adding that the rumored fourth may be on faith. As a retired pope, Benedict’s final encyclical would not carry the weight of the office.