Two pontiffs, each wearing white and each called “pope” living a few yards (meters) apart, with the same archbishop serving both.
The Vatican's announcement Tuesday that Pope Benedict XVI will be known as “emeritus pope” in his retirement, called “Your Holiness” as an honorific and continue to wear the white cassock associated with the papacy fueled renewed questions about potential conflicts arising from the peculiar reality soon to face the Catholic Church: having one reigning and one retired pope.
Benedict's title and what he would wear have been a major source of speculation ever since the 85-year-old pontiff stunned the world by announcing he would resign, the first pope to do so in 600 years.
There has been good reason why popes haven't stepped down over past centuries, given the possibility for divided allegiances and even schism. But the Vatican insists that while the situation created by Benedict's retirement is certainly unique, no major conflicts should result.
“Knowing Benedict XVI, it won't be a problem,” Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said in an interview. “According to the evolution of Catholic doctrine and mentality, there is only one pope. Clearly it's a new situation, but I don't think there will be problems.”
Critics aren't so sure. Some Vatican-based cardinals have privately grumbled about the decision, saying it will make it more difficult for the next pope with Benedict still around.
Swiss theologian Hans Kueng, Benedict's onetime colleague-turned-critic, went even further: “With Benedict XVI, there is a risk of a shadow pope who has abdicated but can still indirectly exert influence,” he told Germany's Der Spiegel magazine last week.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Tuesday that Benedict himself decided on his name and wardrobe choice in consultation with others, settling on “Your Holiness Benedict XVI” and either “emeritus pope” or “emeritus Roman pontiff.”
Lombardi said he didn't know why Benedict had decided to drop his other main title: bishop of Rome.
In the two weeks since Benedict's resignation announcement, Vatican officials had suggested that Benedict would likely resume wearing the traditional black garb of a cleric and would use the title “emeritus bishop of Rome” to avoid creating confusion with the future pope.
Adding to the concern is that Benedict's trusted secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, will be serving both pontiffs _ living with Benedict at the monastery being converted for him inside the Vatican while keeping his day job as prefect of the new pope's household.
Asked about the potential for conflicts given the existing divisions within the Vatican bureaucracy, Lombardi was defensive, saying the decisions had been clearly reasoned and were likely chosen for the sake of simplicity.
“I believe it was well thought out,” he said.
Benedict himself has made clear he is retiring to a lifetime of prayer and meditation “hidden from the world.” However, he still will be very present in the tiny Vatican city-state, where his new home is right next door to the Vatican Radio transmitter and has a lovely view of the dome of St. Peter's Basilica.
Kueng said it was a mistake for Gaenswein to serve both men and for Benedict to remain so close to the center of action.
“No priest likes it if his predecessor sits next to the rectory and watches everything he does,” Kueng was quoted as saying by Der Spiegel. “And even for the bishop of Rome, it is not pleasant if his predecessor constantly has an eye on him.”
However, others reasoned that Benedict's retirement plans and title were in keeping with those of other retired heads of state.
“I was somewhat surprised that Benedict would still be called `His Holiness' and would wear white, but it's akin to the former U.S. presidents being addressed as `Mr. President,”' said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit writer and editor. “It's a mark of respect for the former office he once held.”
“Overall, I don't think that after the conclave there will be any doubt about who the pope is, or who is in charge,” he said.
While Benedict will no longer wear his trademark red shoes, he has taken a liking to a pair of hand-crafted brown loafers made for him by artisans in Leon, Mexico, and given to him during his 2012 visit. He will wear those in retirement, Lombardi said.
Lombardi also elaborated on the College of Cardinals meetings that will take place after the papacy becomes vacant _ crucial gatherings in which cardinals will discuss the problems facing the church and set a date for the start of the conclave to elect Benedict's successor.
The first meeting isn't now expected until Monday, Lombardi said, since the official convocation to cardinals to come to Rome will only go out on Friday _ the first day of what's known as the “sede vacante,” or the vacancy between papacies.
In all, 115 cardinals under the age of 80 are expected in Rome for the conclave to vote on who should become the next pope; two other eligible cardinals have already said they are not coming, one from Britain and another from Indonesia. Cardinals who are 80 and older can join the College meetings but won't participate in the conclave or vote.
Benedict on Monday gave the cardinals the go-ahead to move up the start date of the conclave _ tossing out the traditional 15-day waiting period. But the cardinals won't actually be able to set a date for the conclave until they begin meeting officially Monday.
Lombardi also further described Benedict's final 48 hours as pope: On Tuesday, he was packing, arranging for documents to be sent to the various archives at the Vatican and separating out the personal papers he will take with him into retirement.
On Wednesday, Benedict holds his final public general audience in St. Peter's Square _ an event that has already seen 50,000 ticket requests. He won't greet visiting prelates or VIPs as he normally does at the end but will greet some visiting leaders _ from Slovakia, San Marino, Andorra and his native Bavaria _ privately afterwards.
On Thursday, the pope meets with his cardinals in the morning and then flies by helicopter at 5 p.m. to Castel Gandolfo, the papal residence south of Rome. He will greet parishioners there from the palazzo's balcony _ his final public act as pope.
And at 8 p.m., the exact time at which his retirement becomes official, the Swiss Guards standing outside the doors of the palazzo at Castel Gandolfo will go off duty, their service protecting the head of the Catholic Church finished.
Benedict's personal security will be assured by Vatican police, Lombardi said. (AP)