Benedict is alone. He is ex-Pope. He has ceased to be pope. He is hanging up the pointy hat. He is turning over the keys to the golf buggy to a younger guy. From now on, when he tells young Africans that the best way to protect themselves from AIDS is...
They had to carry the last guy out of there in a box. Three boxes, in fact. One of the many perks of being pope is the way that they don't simply bury you in one coffin. You get three: your body encased in the smallest like you're one of those Russian matryoshka dolls waiting to get sucked up into the kingdom in the clouds. It's not like Judaism where everyone gets the same cheap pine one.
Nope, they do things properly in Catholicism. Or did, until the most conservative pope of modern times decided it was time for him to smash the mold. This time around, Benedict XVI will be walking out of there as the first pope in 600 years to resign. He was elected as God's representative on Earth—a human tin can at the end of a string through which The Great I Am could communicate just how much gays offended him. Now, the Pope is resigning. Effectively, he has hung up the phone on God. That takes balls. Real balls.
How will his reign be remembered? The short answer is that, barring this final grand gesture, it won't. Benedict arrived, and, like God, he saw that it was good, and, like God, he therefore decided to leave well enough alone. Went back to his books. Tried to pretend like all this stuff wasn't happening around him. Naturally, no one elects popes on modernizing platforms. They may be "progressive," but that's only because they're progressing toward approximately 1831. Still, given the signs of the times bursting like mortars around him, this guy could at least have made some speeches about change—taken a leaf out of Barry O.'s book and just bifurcated appearance and reality.
History may not judge him kindly, but there is certainly room, at a human level, for us to rationalize his inaction. It seems like the sheer shock to the system of becoming pope must be a kind of paralysis in itself. Like finding you've grown a second cock. Or that you've learned how to fly.
Being God's Man On Earth? That's heavy. So much so that the overall effect is probably a lot like smoking half a bag of kush through an apple bong on a rainy Saturday afternoon. You just develop self-awareness inertia, become so hyperconscious of your every action that it results in a kind of paralysis, and your thoughts loop over and over around the same Scaletrix of the imagination. Oh my God. I can't believe this is real. Is this happening? Is this my life? I can't believe I'm Pope. I'm. The. Pope. Are these my hands? Oh my God. I can't believe this is real.
Benedict failed to bridge the gap between an evermore liberal First World and a Third World which has, in many senses, gone backwards over the past 30 years. Perhaps no man could've reconciled that. Take Rowan Williams—the first archbishop of Canterbury who quite patently didn't even believe in God. Even a Hampstead pointy head like him couldn't square the circle between his organization's progressive and conservative parts.
Now, Benedict is alone. He is ex-Pope. He has ceased to be pope. He is hanging up the pointy hat. He is turning over the keys to the golf buggy to a younger guy. From now on, when he tells young Africans that the best way to protect themselves from AIDS is abstinence, they can chuckle heartily at his virginal naïveté without fear of smiting. He will just be an old crank with eyes like wormholes into hell. Nothing to fear.
For an 85-year-old, he has maintained a frantic pace of life. Yet after the 28th of this month, his biggest question will be personal: How to fill his time? Soon enough, like all great men who've gone out on top, he'll likely suffer from a chronic, incurable sense of millionaire's ennui.
In some tropical, tax exiles' paradise, Ratzinger will play endless rounds of golf with Richard Branson, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair. Maybe he'll toy with the idea of starting a global foundation in his name. Write a turgid memoir. (“The first time I met Nelson Mandela I was deeply inspired. Here was a person of rare warmth, who had struggled against great odds...”)
He'll start looking effortlessly bronzed. He'll get mildly addicted to tranquilizers. Pile on weight. Pile it off. Get fit. Get into UFOs. Grow a beard. Do some commercial endorsements. Then, eventually, as he stares at his frail care nurse's tits like they're long lost snowglobes, he will begin to wonder whether any of it really happened at all. My god. Did I really do that? All those people? The billion followers. The conclaves. And I was up there, in the middle of it? Being infallible. Did that really happen? Me. The Pope? Are these my hands? My arthritic hands? They look so big. They look like, really, really big and... well... uh... it's all pretty surreal right now...
Unlike for former archbishops of Canterbury, there is no House of Lords retirement home in which he can be conveniently sequestered. In fact, given that there is no protocol, the problems of succession become problems of political power: Like the Duke of Windsor, he'll be exiled to The Bahamas to make damned sure he can't come back and depose the next incumbent.
The Guardian reckons Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson is the frontrunner for the big seat. Paddy Power has a Cardinal Marc Ouellet from Canada as favorite at 5/2, but then Paddy Power also has Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger at 500-1 to be the next manager of Chelsea. I guess the task of second-guessing God is never going to be an easy one.
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Image by Marta Parszeniew.