Special Report: The Loneliness of the Short Distance Pope
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In Havana last March, when Pope Benedict sat down with Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader jocularly asked his fellow octogenarian: "What does a pope do?"
Benedict proceeded to tell Castro, who had stepped down as president in 2008 for health reasons and had to be helped to walk into the room, about his duties as leader of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church.
Little did Castro know that Benedict was himself contemplating retirement.
A pope has not abdicated in some six centuries, and the Catholic faithful have come to expect the man whose titles include successor of St. Peter and "servant of the servants of God," to stay in office until his dying breath. His decision to take that step, just under a year later, would shake the foundations of a Church already reeling from a series of scandals—from problems at the Vatican Bank to allegations of sexual abuse—and facing challenges to its authority around the world.
Back home in the Vatican in the weeks after his Cuba visit, Benedict spent time in the prayerful silence of his small private chapel in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace where a large bronze Christ on a crucifix looks down from a wall. At some point last spring he decided he should go.
"The pope's decision was made many months ago, after the trip to Mexico and Cuba, and kept in an inviolable privacy that nobody could penetrate," wrote Gian Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican newspaper l'Osservatore Romano.
The current pope has never been as well-loved as his charismatic predecessor John Paul, who died in pain because he felt he should "not come down from the cross". Benedict's decision has some faithful asking if Benedict was the right person for the job in the first place.
It was at least partly borne of his own physical shortcomings. While he was in Mexico on the first leg of his March trip, he lost his balance in his residence, hitting his head on a bathroom sink. The accident was kept secret until the Vatican confirmed it last week, but insiders say it reminded Benedict of his encroaching age and physical frailty. The pope was fitted with a pacemaker years ago, the Vatican also disclosed.
Reuters has spoken to cardinals and other Vatican insiders and Church experts to delve into Benedict's thinking and get an idea of how he made his decision to step down. Most sources spoke on condition of anonymity. The picture they paint is of a serious intellectual who let himself become isolated in the Vatican, ill at ease with the day-to-day running of the Church.
Pope John Paul wore his accidents, his hospitalizations and his diseases like badges, believing they could inspire others who were suffering. But Benedict is a different type of man.
"This is a man of incredible privacy," said a Vatican official who has known him for many years. "He had very few friends."
"He certainly did not consult widely," said another Vatican official. "You cannot consult widely in the Vatican without it leaking. It might have been to a very restricted group, perhaps posing the question hypothetically."
On May 23, 2012, less than two months after his meeting with Castro, Benedict faced an event that would shake his confidence and reinforce his still-secret decision.
The Pope's personal butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested and charged with leaking sensitive documents from the pontiff's desk to the media. The documents alleged corruption in the Vatican and sparked a scandal that cast a rare and unwelcome public light on the inner workings of the Holy See.
Gabriele, one of fewer than 10 people who had a key to an elevator that led to the pope's private apartments, was convicted last October and released from jail after Benedict pardoned him three days before Christmas.
The betrayal had a devastating effect on Benedict, according to an official who knows him well. The Vatican tried to put a good face on the affair, stressing the pope's benevolence towards his betrayer. But the mood in the Apostolic Palace was different.
"He was never the same after that," one official source said of the treachery by someone Benedict considered a son. "It was like shooting Achilles in the heel."
There were other worries on Benedict's mind last year, insiders said.
The Vatican Bank, for decades tainted by scandals, found itself mired in fresh controversy, this time over an Italian investigation into alleged money-laundering.
A group of American nuns, disciplined by the Vatican for being too liberal on issues such as homosexuality, was enjoying a groundswell of popular support, their backers accusing the Vatican of excessive rigidity.
Fresh allegations of sexual abuse committed by priests continued to emerge, in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the United States. In the once staunchly Catholic country of Ireland, the deputy prime minister demanded the resignation of the head of the Church, Cardinal Sean Brady, over his handling of abuse cases.
And despite the pope's strong condemnation of it, gay marriage was making advances in the United States and some Catholic European countries.
At the same time Benedict's health was deteriorating.