The pope’s general audience in the Piazza di San Pietro -- his last big public event -- was palpable in its warmth.  The faces of many of the attending prelates betrayed their affection and their anxiety. Only Benedict XVI looked really at peace.  It is an end and a beginning and both are fraught with challenge and risk.

The pope’s address -- framed by encomia in several languages and read with flawlessly perfect diction by a contingent of monsignori -- was part swan song and part ferverino. 

He left no room for doubt that his decision to resign was the right one. Deploying several nautical allusions, as in steering the Barque of Peter, he acknowledged the demands and difficulties of the Petrine ministry. 

But he also noted the good times, the solidarity he felt while pope, and the gratitude he has for many who have assisted him in his role as pontiff.

To that end, he thanked the members of the College of Cardinals, those who labour quietly and unseen (possibly a reference to his stalwart personal team of secretaries and household staff) and then did something rather remarkable: he singled out one name for special recognition, and what a name.

Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, his Secretary of State, a former assistant when Benedict was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has been at the centre of much of the controversy swirling about the Vatican.

His enemies seem legion; attacks on him personally are ugly and persistent; he is not above his own politicking and scheming.  And, yet, here he is receiving special mention in an otherwise global and generic farewell.

Is Benedict signalling that he has no intention of turning on “his” man?  Is the pope anxious to secure in the minds of the cardinal-electors that Bertone retains papal approval and in so doing try to ensure his fair treatment by different pontifical hands? 

Things are rarely said explicitly in these matters: it is all in the gesture, the intonation.  Certainly, it makes sense to thank your No 2 -- the Secretary of State for the Vatican City -- and the absence of a specific mention could easily be interpreted as a “distancing,” but with its inclusion Joseph Ratzinger once again underscores the high importance he attaches to institutional and personal loyalty.



Dr. Michael W. Higgins is CTV's Papal commentator. He is also:

  • Vice President for Mission & Catholic Identity, Sacred Heart University
  • Chief Consultant, for “Sir Peter Ustinov’s Inside the Vatican” 6-part series
  • Author of Bestsellers: Power and Peril: the Catholic Church at the Crossroads , (HarperCollins, 2002) and Stalking the Holy: In Pursuit of Saint-Making (Anansi, 2006)
  • Author of Award-winners: Heretic Blood: the Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton (Stoddart, 1998) and Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical sex Abuse Scandal (Novalis, 2010)
  • Past President of St. Jerome’s in Waterloo & St. Thomas In Fredericton NB