Moment of reflection as Benedict prepares to step down

Conclave could come earlier than expected

Moment of reflection as Benedict prepares to step down

Rome, February 21 - Pope Benedict XVI is living with a "deep and positive" spirit these days leading up to his announced resignation, Vatican Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said on Thursday. "It is a moment of profound reflection and mutual spiritual quest. This is the perspective the Church has been called on to live in this moment," he said. The Vatican spokesman has asked journalists and media to respect this spiritual search during this period. Pope Benedict will be remembered as a popular pope when he steps down on February 28, but according to a poll released on Thursday, he is no John Paul II. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News survey, approximately 76% of Catholics view Benedict favorably, up slightly from a 2008 survey. Americans in general gave him a 54% popularity rating. Only 14% of Catholics and 27% of the overall public gave the pontiff negative ratings. However, compared to his predecessor John Paul II, Benedict rates 14 points lower. Polish pontiff John Paul had a 67% approval rating by Americans in general during his final month as pope and 87% of Catholics gave him positive marks. In the poll carried out February 13-17, 64% supported Benedict's decision to resign. Benedict XVI will not be a "shadow pope" after he steps down as pontiff, according to his elder brother Georg Ratzinger. Benedict, 85, shocked the world on February 11 when he announced he would step down from a position that is usually for life. He said his age meant he no longer had the physical and mental strength to lead the Catholic Church. The move sparked speculation that Benedict's presence could overshadow the work of his successor. But the German pontiff has said he will remain "hidden to the world" after he steps down and his brother says there is no chance of him causing problems for the next pope. "The head of the Church needs to be a person in possession of all their energies," Ratzinger, a priest in Regensburg, told Corriere della Sera. "It was a human choice inspired by God, an act of responsibility... He will not be a shadow pope. "He doesn't want to put his successor in difficulty". The outgoing pope may continue to call himself Benedict XVI after he steps down as pontiff, his older brother has said. "I think he will continue to call himself Benedict XVI". The outgoing pope was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger and took the name Benedict XVI when he was elected to the helm of the Catholic Church in 2005. Lombardi has said a new title may have to be coined to refer to Benedict once he officially steps down. "It will be interesting to see how we address him, how he will be called," said Lombardi. "It will be difficult to call him cardinal". The head of the Vatican's press service on Thursday said claims by an article in a weekly newsmagazine that the pope decided to step down in December after reading a report into the Vatileaks scandal were "fantasies". A committee of three cardinals which carried out the investigation "did its work, did its report" and delivered it to the pope, Lombardi said. "Let's not run after all these conjectures, fantasies and opinions. Do not expect comments, confirmations or denials of particular points". Last week Italian current affairs magazine Panorama published a dossier on the Vatileaks scandal, claiming the pope decided he would resign last December after having received and read the second installment of the investigation by three cardinals into the case of sensitive Vatican documents which were leaked to the press. However in a jibe to the reporters' competence, Lombardi Thursday noted how the story refers to events in the pope's final day schedule that Lombardi said are not planned. "If one reads these few lines one understands there is no competence on Vatican issues on the part of whoever wrote these things". Lombardi also said the three cardinals charged by Pope Benedict XVI to shed light on the Vatileaks scandal will not comment on their work. Commenting on Lombardi's remarks, the head of television broadcaster Tv2000, Dino Boffo, said the pope's decision to retire was based on a desire to "put an end to a management of power which can scandalize the last and the humble". Referring to the secrecy with which the Vatileaks scandal has been shrouded, Boffo also said: "I think the Holy See has to free itself of the villainous habit of anonymous letters with no signatures and no return address". A key commitment the next pope must be willing to make is to greater transparency in the dealings of the Catholic Church, a Roman cardinal said Thursday. Benedict set a standard for transparency that his successor must not only match but exceed, said Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of St Peter's Basilica and the Pope's vicar for Vatican City. Other criteria for the selection of the new pope will be determined after prayer for God's guidance, said Comastri, one of the 117 cardinals that will elect the next pope. And it seems "too long to wait for March 15" to begin the conclave, since cardinals are already arriving prepared to begin the selection process, added Comastri. It is possible that Benedict is preparing a special statement that will allow the conclave to begin earlier than the traditional 15-day waiting period, since he is retiring and has given ample notice. Usually, popes die in office and so the waiting period was needed to allow cardinals to travel to Rome from around the world. But sources have said Benedict may order a tighter time line for this conclave. The pope could issue a special statement on the rules of the upcoming conclave to elect his successor, without permanently changing the substance of the rules, Lombardi said Thursday. Benedict could issue a 'motu proprio' on the conclave involving "possible adjustments" to its timing, he confirmed. A motu proprio is a document that popes can use to make changes to Church law or procedure. But the world will have to "wait to see" what the pope ultimately chooses to do, he added. Such changes could allow the conclave to occur earlier than mid-March. The Vatican initially said that the conclave would not take place until 15 to 20 days after Benedict leaves the position, in accordance with Church rules. Given that the pope has not died, but has quit means that cardinals have plenty of notice of the election to come. Many cardinals are already in Rome and they have begun informal talks about what sort of person the next pope should be. Comastri suggested the pope very deliberately chose the season of Lent for his retirement, "because it is a time of call to conversion and Pope Benedict XVI is therefore inviting all to a conversion of heart". Another top cardinal said Thursday that the next pope's primary objective will be handling priest sex-abuse scandals and other "challenges". In an interview with ANSA, Cardinal Geraldo Majella Agnelo of Brazil said Benedict XVI's successor "will not be chosen with age or origin in mind, but for his ability to deal with the new challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church, among which are pedophilia and covering it up". Agnelo, 79, is the primate emeritus of Brazil, the country with the largest number of Catholics in the world. He was considered 'papabile', or a papal contender, in 2005 when Benedict XVI was chosen to succeed John Paul II. "There are great expectations surrounding the next conclave, considering this historic moment we're living in with its problems and challenges," he added. "The biggest challenge for the Church, for the cardinals and the bishops will be to bring an end to the pedophilia coverup scandals, to keep those guilty out of the clerical state and to foster a new generation of priests". The Church sex-abuse scandals have been heating up as two top American cardinals have been called by prosecutors for questioning about sex-abuse cases in the weeks leading up to the conclave to elect a new pope. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, was questioned Wednesday about sex-abuse allegations against priests at the Milwaukee Archdiocese, which he led from 2002 until 2009. Cardinal Roger Mahony, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles, must answer questions under oath Saturday about a visiting Mexican priest who in 1987 is believed to have molested 26 children. His case in particular has prompted calls on social media and from advocacy groups for him to skip the conclave, which is expected to commence mid-March. "Pedophilia and homosexuality are grave sins, but no one can stop someone from coming to the conclave," said Agnelo. "Technically, according to canon law, it is not possible to prevent any cardinal from voting. It is not allowed, for any reason. All of us can vote and be voted for". The Vatican has also said it will maintain its improving ties with the ultra-traditionalist Lefebvrist breakaway group once a new pope is installed. "Relations with the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) will be passed down from the Holy Father to the next pope," said Spokesman Lombardi Thursday. The Vatican forged a draft with the SSPX last June that aims to formally reunite the group with the Catholic Church. SSPX broke away from the Church over theological differences stemming from the changes it adopted with the Second Vatican Council of some 45 years ago. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication imposed on four SSPX bishops which he said "could have prejudiced the opening of a door for dialogue" with the leaders of the society. The move came just days after one of the four, British Bishop Richard Williamson, was shown in an interview with Swedish television claiming that the facts were "hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed" during the Holocaust, sparking a wave of controversy and strong protests from Jewish communities across the world. The excommunications were imposed when the four bishops were consecrated in 1988 in defiance of Rome by the SSPX's late founder, French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Meanwhile, security in St Peter's square will be increased for "maximum safety" during Pope Benedict XVI's last Angelus to be given on Sunday, said Vatican authorities and Rome police on Thursday. Not only will additional metal detectors be installed, 600 supplementary police, including sharpshooters, will begin service on Saturday evening in preparation for the pope's final Sunday appearance as pontiff before he retreats to the papal summer residence Castel Gandolfo outside Rome. Benedict XVI will salute the cardinals who will elect his successor as pope at 11:00 on February 28, nine hours before he formally steps down, Father Lombardi said Thursday.

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