National Geographic News
The Mater Ecclesiae monastery in the Vatican.

A view of the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, on right, where Pope Benedict XVI is expected to live after he resigns.

Photograph by Alessandra Tarantino, AP

Michele Gravino

National Geographic News

Published February 12, 2013

Someone with a suspicious mind and deep knowledge of Vatican trivia might have guessed that something was going on months ago. Last November, a community of cloistered nuns vacated the  Mater Ecclesiae monastery, located inside Vatican Gardens, two years before they were expected to do so.

The monastery has since been closed for renovation.

On Monday, in the press conference that followed Pope Benedict XVI's announcement that he will resign at the end of the month, Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office,  revealed that the monastery will be the retired pontiff's new home. (Photo Gallery: Inside the Vatican.)

"When renovation work on the monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican is complete, the Holy Father will move there for a period of prayer and reflection," Lombardi said.

Until then, the pope will stay at the Apostolical Palace and the Pontifical Villas in Castel Gandolfo, a small lake town about 15 miles (24 kilometers) southeast of Rome, which serves as the traditional summer residence for popes.

The Mater Ecclesiae monastery was founded in 1992 by Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, "to create a place to house an international convent for contemplative life within the walls of Vatican City," according to the Vatican City State website.

It has housed small communities of cloistered nuns whose main task has been to provide spiritual assistance to the pope and to the Roman Catholic Church as a whole by praying in Latin and singing Gregorian chants.

The nuns would also embroider papal garments and cultivate a small organic orchard and a rose garden next to their residence. In a 2009 interview with the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, the monastery's then abbess said that Benedict particularly appreciated the special-recipe marmalade that the nuns would prepare out of the oranges and lemons they picked in the Vatican orchard.

It is not yet clear for how long the soon-to-be-former pope will stay at the monastery. Lombardi has said that Benedict will not participate in the March conclave that will elect his successor, stressing that there will be "no confusion or division arising from his resignation."

Lombardi also said that he wasn't sure of Benedict's future title—there are no canon law provisions or historical precedents regarding the statute, prerogatives, or titles for a retired pope.

Resignations of Popes Past

Only a handful of popes have willfully or forcefully resigned in the church's history, the last case going back to 1415, almost 600 years ago.

"It was Pope Gregory XII, who, in a very sacrificial gesture, offered to resign so that the Council of Constance could assume his power and appoint a new pope, and in so doing bring an end [to the] Great Western Schism," Donald Prudlo, associate professor of history at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, told Vatican Radio.

Italian and foreign commentators have been likening Benedict's choice to a famous case of papal abdication—that of Celestine V, who was elected in 1294 and left the Roman throne only five months later.

"At the end of the 13th century, a very holy hermit named Peter was elected as Pope Celestine V in order to break a deadlock in the conclave that had lasted nearly three years," Prudlo explained. "He was elected because of his personal holiness, sort of a unity candidate. And once he got there, being a hermit, not used to the ways of the Roman Curia, he found himself somewhat unsuited to the task."

So he resigned and lived as a hermit—or, some historians say, as a prisoner—in a castle belonging to his successor, Boniface VIII, before dying in 1296.

Celestine is widely recognized as the object of Dante Alighieri's scolding verses in his Divine Comedy. The former pope was proclaimed saint in 1313.

In 2009, Benedict XVI visited Celestine's tomb in L'Aquila (map) and left the pallium—a vestment that is the symbol of papal authority—on the grave. Now that gesture is being interpreted as a premonition of the choice he would eventually make.

3 comments
Jay North
Jay North

Pope tweets on real reasons for stepping down – “no one was listening to me.” Read http://sorrysods.com for his full confession.

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