Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict is gone but not forgotten

Retiring pope has power to influence decision of the cardinals, and the reign of his successor

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 March, 2013, 3:20am

Pope Benedict is gone but far from forgotten as cardinals begin voting for candidates to replace him, with his personal secretary Georg Gänswein one of the last to leave the Sistine Chapel before the start of the conclave.

"He has already influenced the outcome," said Vatican expert Bruno Bartoloni, noting that all 115 cardinals who began their secret conclave on Tuesday were named either by Benedict or his predecessor and ideological soulmate Pope John Paul II.

Indeed all three cardinals considered frontrunners to succeed Benedict - Italy's Angelo Scola, Canada's Marc Ouellet and Brazil's Odilo Scherer - are in his conservative mould.

And the German pope's "provocative" decision to become the first pope to abdicate since the Middle Ages could "influence the cardinals to make robust decisions", Bartoloni said.

Benedict cited failing strength of mind and body when he stunned the world with his decision to resign from a troubled eight-year papacy marked by scandal and intrigue.

Father Robert Sirico, head of the US-based Acton Institute think tank, insisted that Benedict had "been very careful not to insert himself into the proceedings" for his succession.

He pointed to Benedict's "removal of himself to Castel Gandolfo, and the fact that he made no comments or expressed any preferences on a number of the things leading up to his resignation".

There are consequences to his decision and obviously not all good. It has to weigh on his mind [that the cardinal electors] are in this position because of his decision

The "pope emeritus", who turns 86 next month, has begun his retirement at the papal summer residence outside Rome with promises of being "hidden from the world" and living as a "simple pilgrim".

"Obviously there are consequences to his decision and obviously not all good," Sirico acknowledged, adding: "It has to weigh on his mind [that the cardinal electors] are in this position because of his decision."

One obvious consequence is that "future popes could more easily resign", he noted.

Once the election is over, Benedict's potential silent influence on the future pope cannot be underestimated. After staying away from the world's smallest city state for two months, Benedict will move into a former convent inside the Vatican walls.

"Supposing there's a miracle and the new pope is a progressive?" argued Frei Betto, a well-known leftist Dominican monk, speaking in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

"He won't do anything to upset Benedict XVI. We will get to know the new pope when Benedict XVI dies," the outspoken monk said.

The new pope should move quickly to "define the status of his predecessor", said Vatican expert Sandro Magister, who writes for the left-leaning Italian weekly L'espresso.

Bartoloni added: "The new pope will have to make a gesture towards Benedict immediately."

Sirico, whose think tank studies religion and freedom, said of the new pope: "I would consider this a real asset to be able to consult my predecessor."

He conceded the novelty, however, of "having a living pope in your backyard".