Since last fall, reports from Rome have indicated that B16 has been having hip trouble in the approach to his 85th birthday next month. Around the same time, the pontiff resurrected the moving platform for processions in St Peter's Basilica first employed by Blessed John Paul II in the final stages of his 27-year reign.
After a fall in the shower that broke his right femur, the Polish Pope underwent hip replacement surgery in 1994, which sidelined him for a monthlong period of recovery and rehab at the Gemelli clinic, the Roman hospital where a papal suite is kept.
Most recently before today, Benedict was seen grasping the hand of a priest for support as he climbed the steep steps of the church of San Gregorio al Celio for an early March Ecumenical Vespers with the departing Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
According to a wire report citing unnamed "papal aides," the Pope began using the cane privately "about two months ago... because it makes him feel more secure."
As has been widely-noted over the last six months, Benedict -- who became the oldest Roman pontiff in over a century earlier this month -- has gradually curtailed his schedule, and even his cherished writing, to conserve his energy, most notably in the end of the long-standing practice of individual meetings with bishops on ad limina visits and their replacement with group sessions. Likewise, the ongoing Roman pilgrimage of the US bishops has seen the traditional complement of an address to each of the American conference's 15 regions slashed to five.
At the same time, two long-running projects that have defined Joseph Ratzinger's seven years on Peter's chair are each reaching a critical point.
Last week, the CDF prefect Cardinal William Levada delivered word to the illicitly-ordained head of the Society of St Pius X, Bishop Bernard Fellay, that the breakaway traditionalist group's January response to a Vatican proposal for its return to communion with Rome was "not sufficient to overcome the doctrinal problems which lie at the foundation of the rift."
Fellay was urged to "clarify his position" in the hopes of avoiding what a Holy See statement termed "an ecclesial rupture of painful and incalculable consequences."
The French prelate, whose 1988 ordination by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre incurred an excommunication that Benedict controversially lifted in 2009 with an eye to reconciliation, has reportedly been given a month to accept the unpublished "Doctrinal Preamble," which emerged from a yearlong theological dialogue between the CDF and representatives of the Swiss-based SSPX.
And lastly, the work that then-Cardinal Ratzinger initially planned as his retirement's magnum opus is likewise nearing its finish line: its second volume released a year ago this week, the third and final piece of the Pope's historic chronicle of Jesus of Nazareth -- this one dedicated to the Lord's childhood -- is said to be on target for a pub-date later this year.
To be sure, chatter of Benedict's resignation or an air of "fine del pontificato" in Rome is likely more far-fetched than its hawkers would want to show. Yet much as the sight of a cane shouldn't rev up another round of the Death Watch, the reality remains that the reign of Ratzinger is clearly tracking toward a new, even more deliberate phase.