Pope for dummies: What will Benedict XVI do on his last day in office?

Pope Benedict XVI leads his last Angelus prayer before stepping down in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican. Credit: Reuters
Pope Benedict XVI leads his last Angelus prayer before stepping down in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
Credit: Reuters

The Pope is resigning: an unprecedented event in modern times. Indeed, because the event is so unusual, the Catholic Church is charting new territory as Benedict XVI leaves office. Metro explains.

What happens on February 28?

This is the last day of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. In the morning, he meets with cardinals at the Vatican. Cardinals, which are based in countries around the world, have travelled to Rome for this event. They convene again in March to elect a new Pope.

At 4:55 pm, Benedict XVI bids farewell to his staff and the Swiss Guards at the Vatican Apostolic Palace and travels by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s vacation residence. Once there, he will greet the crowds from the balcony.

At 8pm, Benedict XVI officially relinquishes the papacy. The Swiss Guards, who serve the Pope, depart and are replaced by soldiers of the Vatican Gendarmerie, who will be responsible for Benedict XVI’s security until he dies.

What will the Pope do next? Is he even a Pope anymore?

As this is unchartered territory for the Church, officials have had to come up with new solutions. Benedict will be known as “Pope Emeritus” and will still be called “His Holiness Benedict XVI”. He’ll continue the white cassock reserved for Popes, but not the cape. Benedict, a renowned scholar, will live in a monastery, where he will spend his time studying and writing.

A new Pope hasn’t been elected yet. Who will be in charge?

The Vatican bureaucracy will continue as usual, headed by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Until a new Pontiff is elected, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, will lead the clergy in a caretaker capacity.

When will a new Pope be elected?

Nobody knows. Around March 1, Cardinal Sodano, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, will call all cardinals to a conclave. In one of his final acts as Pope, Benedict XVI amended Canon Law, which regulates the Catholic Church, so as to allow a speedy election of a new Pontiff. Ordinarily the conclave begins 15-20 days after the death of the incumbent, which would mean the cardinals would convene no earlier than March 15, but the conclave may now be brought forward. All cardinals not younger than 80 are eligible to vote; that means that 115 cardinals will be voting this time.

How long will it take them to elect a new Pontiff?

It depends. It took the cardinals three ballots, over one and a half days, to elect Pope Benedict XVI, and all recent papal elections have been relatively speedy. There will definitely be a new Pope in place before Holy Week, which begins on March 25.

How will we know the Cardinals have made their choice?

Ah, the famous white smoke. After each round of voting in the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals burn their ballots in a fireplace whose chimney is visible to the crowds on St. Peter’s Square. Added dye makes the smoke black. When a winner emerges, the ballots are burned without the dye. The white smoke tells the world that a new Pontiff has been elected. An official then steps out on the balcony, announcing the famous words Habemus Papam, and the new Pontiff emerges.


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