The competition and speculations over who would be the next Vatican’s chief have been floating around since Monday, when Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world and its over one billion Catholics by announcing his retirement.
The 85-year-old German pontiff said he took the decision with full freedom, due to his “advanced age” and failing strength of “mind and body.” He would officially be stepping down as head of the Catholic Church on Feb. 28.
The pontiff resigned amid a sense of crisis within the Vatican. The institution’s most recent scandals involve several documents leaked by the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, alleging corruption, internal disputes within the Vatican and other gossip.
Benedict XVI, Pope since 2005, has become the first to resign since Gregory XII in 1415, and the first to have done so willingly since Celestine V in 1294.
Having no one to present his “resignation” to, Benedict’s resolution to retire instigated a debate within the Church itself.
Legally, the Pope can retire if he so chooses; the Code of Canon Law, the law that rules the Catholic Church, states: “If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone.”
However, the Successor of St. Peter is expected to remain in office until his death. Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II has consistently said that he will serve “as long as the Lord desires,” and he remained in position despite his deteriorating health, until he deceased in 2005.
Despite the papal resignation being an uncommon event, it was nevertheless well prepared.
Back in 2010, Benedict said a pope who became incapable to do his job properly “has the right, and in some circumstances even the duty, to resign.”
Even though Pope Benedict will not vote in the conclave, in which all cardinals under the age of 80 will take part, his influence is expected to be felt, since a large number of the voting cardinals were picked by the resigning pontiff himself.
But the Vatican thinks otherwise. “The pope will surely say absolutely nothing about the process of the election,” Reverend Federico Lombardi the Vatican’s spokesman stated. “He will not interfere in any way.”
The cardinals’ conclave to choose the next pope is expected to convene in mid-March, with a new pope elected in time to preside the Easter Mass.
Amongst the 117 cardinals eligible to enter the secretive conclave to elect Benedict's successor, Lebanese Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai, head of the Maronite Church, an Eastern Catholic Syriac Church that had affirmed its communion with Rome since 1180 A.D.
Vatican’s role in the Arab world
The Vatican’s influence in the Arab region has been increasingly highlighted in recent years.
According to Father R., a high-ranked Maronite Priest in Lebanon who prefers not be named, the main difference between John Paul II and the outgoing Pope, is that “Benedict, who has sent a lesson of humility to the world after his retirement, has approached the Arab Christians from a regional perspective, contrary to his predecessor who mainly accentuated his efforts on Lebanon and the solidarity between religions in the cedar land.”
In an interview with Al Arabiya, Father R. explained that Benedict XVI has put a real action plan for the region’s Christians during his last visit to Lebanon in September 2012. “The Pope had desired to visit not only Lebanon, but also Syria and Iraq; however, for security reasons he had limited his trip to Beirut.”
“In our region, Christians are mainly divided into Catholics and Orthodox. The influence of the Vatican is certainly more present on the Catholics,” said the Lebanese priest.
“Catholicism is in serious decline in Europe where the churches are slowly being emptied, but it is growing vigorously in Africa, Latin America and Asia, so the role of the Vatican has to expand all over the world,” he added.
“The Christians of the Levant have faith in the Vatican’s impact to carry their cause onto the international scene,” Father R. said, “because the Vatican is the only state in the world that has no political and economical aspirations, as it carries its political influence nobly and with no bad intentions.”
Father R. concluded that “the network of the Vatican is amongst the biggest in the world; their ambassadors who are spread all over the globe are well-informed and they pass on the information in its more authentic form with no political censorship whatsoever.”
From his side, Daoud al-Sayegh, the political adviser of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri for religious affairs, commented on the Pope’s latest decision in an interview with Al Arabiya.
“We can’t really say resignation,” commented Sayegh on Benedict’s latest decision.
“Since there is no one to present the leave to, it is rather an announcement from the Pope that he wishes to halt his duties,” Sayegh explained.
“A Pope’s retirement is an ongoing debate within the Church. Should the successor of St. Peter accomplish his duties as delegated by God just like the previous Pope John Paul II did despite his grave illness?
“I think that Benedict didn’t want to repeat the same experience as the former pope, and now it’s clear that the main reason of his announcement to quit is due to health reason”, added Sayegh.
“The pope recently had an open-heart operation where doctors have replaced his heart battery, and now he realized his health is deteriorating.”
Sayegh also stated that Pope Benedict was highly concerned by the Arab region.
“Pope Benedict organized and presided the Middle East Synod held in Rome in 2010.
“The Synod provided a unique opportunity for Middle East Christians to share their hopes and concerns with the Vatican, and therefore the world.”
According to Sayegh, the Pope was “very much preoccupied by the huge threats that Christians in the Arab region, whether in Iraq or Occupied Palestine or other countries, are facing.”
The Vatican is the sole state that deals with international relations with no interests, said Sayegh. “They preach for equality, non-violence, democracy, freedom, and human rights.”
The Vatican and Syria
Last week, Lebanese Patriarch al-Rai’s visit to Damascus where he presided a mass in a country where the popular uprising has left tens of thousands killed since March 2011, had instigated lots of criticism, and many called his move a huge faux-pas.
“The Vatican takes a severe stand against dictatorships and oppressing leaders,” declared Daoud al-Sayegh. “These positions were clear throughout history, and we all remember the famous speech of Jean Paul II in the U.N. criticizing dictatorships.”
“It is not true that the Vatican believes that dictators’ regimes protect the Christians, or the minorities in the Arab world, and in this particular matter there is a big divergence between the Pope and the Vatican and some of the Christian leaders in the Levant.”
As for the identity of the new Pope, Sayegh said: “We can’t really talk about elections; it is mostly a consensus within the conclave of cardinals.”
“In addition to geographical influences, meaning where the catholic population is widely spread and growing, the cardinals mainly judge the qualifications of the new Pope.”
Sayegh stated that the “Pope plays a major role in international relations. We all remember the three American presidents, Bush senior and junior and Bill Clinton, who kneeled down next to John Paul II’s tomb.
“The Pope appoints, for example, the Cardinal of New York, and the Cardinal of Paris, who have major impact within their societies, not political of course like in our region, but a religious one.
“So the future pope has a great responsibility ahead, hence, the cardinals will have to take their time to choose the most qualified to fill in Benedict’s place,” ended Sayegh.
Could the next Pope be Arab? By law, any cardinal in the conclave is a voting member and eligible to be the next Pope. So, technically, yes.
Nevertheless, very few analyses have favored this possibility, except for the 300 fans that joined a newly created Facebook page that promotes Lebanese Patriarch Rai for popery.
Meanwhile, the world we will be waiting for the white smoke signals from the Papal conclave, the sign that a new Pope has been chosen.