When Pope Celestine V quit his job in 1294, his successor locked him in prison and kept him there until he died. Pope Benedict XVI will not suffer the same sad fate. When he resigns Thursday, not only will he not be jailed, exiled or even sent to a retirement home. He will get to stay in the Vatican.
This worries some Catholics who think having two popes in the house will make things a little crowded. Some even fear there is a nefarious scheme at work that will allow Benedict to exert undue influence on his successor. Given the history of intrigue in the Roman Catholic Church, it is not surprising that there might be worries about this unprecedented situation. But really, if Benedict wanted to hang on to power, he had a much easier way to do that: Keep his job. He is keeping his name, the right to be called “his holiness” and his white wardrobe (though not his snazzy red shoes), but power will swiftly pass to the new guy.
Benedict will be just another retiree in Rome with time on his hands. Will he be walking the marble halls rounding up a few cardinals for a round of cribbage? Will he be down in the park tossing a bocce ball with the white-haired pensioners? Is there a senior center nearby where he might want to hang out and take up ceramics? Or might he spend his days on a golf course the way retired presidents used to do before Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton messed things up by being so overly ambitious in their post-White House years?
Benedict (or Benny, as the waitress would call him if there were a Rome Denny’s with an early bird special) says he will spend his time praying. That seems like the proper thing for an ex-pope to do. Still, we should not blame him if, sooner or later, he’s tempted to switch on the TV, push back the lounge chair and watch some football until he nods off like any other normal senior citizen. After all, his work is done.
He has shown that popes do not need to keep at it until their job kills them off. They may be vicars of Christ, but popes are not supermen. Benedict is wise enough to know his church can live with that truth and that it will probably be better for it.