At "Home" With the Popes
Long his predecessors' summer retreat from Rome's oppressive heat, the reigning pontiff has quite the soft spot for the residence built in the early 1600s for Pope Urban VIII. Shortly after his election, the house's current occupant made his first visit there to recharge after the twin whirlwind of the interregnum and his pontificate's kickoff, and Papa Ratzi has invariably headed to Castel for a couple days of rest immediately on returning from each of his major trips.
Away from the Vatican's notorious "village of washerwomen" and with the added bonus of its walled gardens, it's also been Benedict's preferred site for receiving stealth visitors -- his subsequently-revealed long evenings with Fr Hans Kung and the late Italian "Christian atheist" Oriana Fallaci both took place there.
Outside the palazzo's inner courtyard -- where the Pope leads the Sunday crowd in the traditional noon Angelus -- little of what happens behind its walls is known. But in a recent interview with the Vatican daily L'Osservatore Romano, one longtime Castel courtier offered a peek:
Pope John Paul was the first to really use the villa as a second home. Especially in the early years, he hosted evening meetings with young people where the youths would light bonfires, sing songs and tell stories about their lives.
Pope John Paul would pay frequent visits to the families of the 50 or so employees who live and work on the villa grounds, accepting a cup of tea and chatting casually with them, [CG director Saverio] Petrillo said.
The employees' children, whenever they would see the pope walking in the gardens, would hide behind the bushes and jump out at him when he passed. The pope loved the game and played along, Petrillo said.
It was Pope John Paul who had a swimming pool built at the villa so that he could exercise, on the advice of doctors, the director said. When some critics objected to the expense, the Polish pope joked: "A new conclave would cost a lot more."
Petrillo said Pope Benedict impresses the villa staff with his extraordinary sensitivity and spirituality. The German pope finds the quiet villa a perfect place to write, and every evening the staff hears the pope at his piano, playing his favorite works of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.He might've died on 3 June, but as the liturgical calendar already assigned the day to the Ugandan martyrs, "Good Pope John's" feast is instead observed on 11 October -- the anniversary of Vatican II's opening session.
"It makes us happy because it means he really feels at home here," Petrillo said.
The 50-acre villa, built on the grounds of a Roman emperor's country residence, is perched in the Alban Hills south of Rome. Petrillo began working there in 1958, in the waning days of Pope Pius XII.
He learned that during World War II, Pope Pius had not only opened the doors of the villa to thousands of people fleeing the Nazi army, but on many occasions gave up his bedroom to expectant women among the refugees.
"Fifty babies were born in that room," Petrillo said.
Pope John liked the villa in part because he could slip out so easily.
"Every now and then he disappeared. He would go out one of the gates without telling anyone and without an escort," Petrillo said. The pontiff would make his way to nearby towns and just hang out with people.
One Sunday morning the staff received phone calls placing the pope at the sea town of Anzio, then at Nettuno and then at the lake below Castel Gandolfo. As his aides panicked, the pope returned calmly in time to lead the Angelus prayer at noon.