The Curtain Falls
Even if the out-of-town cardinals begin arriving today for the epic month ahead, the first part of the week will remain fairly normal despite B16's impending resignation. As the remaining deck of approved appointments and other moves are quickly being published before Thursday's effective date on the Pope's departure, only at Wednesday's last General Audience will the public markers of the moment continue.
Set to begin at the usual 10.30am – all times Rome – Joseph Ratzinger's last appearance as pontiff has been moved outside to accommodate a crowd expected to pack St Peter's Square, led by the throng of red-hats.
Unlike the Sunday Angelus' usual focus on that weekend's Gospel, Benedict's audiences have had a wider berth of topics, with the 20-minute talks mostly clustered into series dedicated to particular subjects ranging from the doctors of the church to the liturgical seasons or recaps of his foreign trips. Despite having begun a new series on the Creed prior to his 11 February announcement, the penultimate Wednesday gathering was dedicated to Lent, and the topic for the final session remains to be seen.
Whatever it is, it will be this Pope's last public word; all the rest is just silence and images.
On Departure Day itself, the 11am gathering with the cardinals in the Sala Clementina – the state room where a deceased pontiff's lying in-state traditionally begins – will feature no closing speech (which, in some parts, would inevitably be construed as "marching orders" for the Conclave), simply Benedict's private, individual words of thanks to the members of his "Senate," practically all of whom are expected to be in Rome by then.
Though earlier buzz had tipped the possibility that the retiring Pope might create three more voting cardinals to bring the College to its 120-elector maximum, the event's announcement by the prefecture of the Papal Household as opposed to the Office for Papal Liturgical Celebrations appears to preclude a surprise of the sort. On another front, meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the tradition Benedict's kept on his major milestones since his 2005 election – a lunch with the cardinals present for the occasion – will occur in this instance.
In any event, the most dramatic moments of all come just before dusk. As laid out by the Vatican, at 5pm Thursday, accompanied by his secretary, the recently-named Household chief Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the Pope is slated to exit the Apostolic Palace, where he'll be seen off by his deputy for most of the last two decades – Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB, now both Camerlengo and Secretary of State – on leaving the San Damaso courtyard by car, bound for the Vatican helipad. There, the Cardinal-Dean Angelo Sodano will bid the last farewell before the chopper takes off for Benedict's beloved Castel Gandolfo, where he's expected to stay until his new residence behind the city-state's walls (a former convent) is completed sometime around May.
On arriving at the papacy's answer to "Camp David" or "Chequers," a delegation is expected to welcome the pontiff in the waning minutes of his eight-year reign. At 8pm, the resignation takes effect and the See of Rome falls vacant.
From that hour – at which the heads of all Curia offices immediately lose their posts – the church's temporary, mostly limited oversight falls to the College of Cardinals led by Sodano, who will have to "summon" the group (even if, in reality, most will already be on-hand) to begin the daily General Congregations which, among other matters, will determine the date of the Conclave and hear reports from two distinguished clerics on the state and needs of the church in this time with an eye to the election.
As the Dean has no authority to act until the vacancy is triggered, as of press time, current expectations tip the congregations to begin on Friday. Who's likely to be chosen to deliver the pre-Conclave reports is currently unknown.
Elsewhere, another variable that's still to be announced concerns the plans for one of the better-known rites of a Petrine vacancy: the sealing of the papal apartment – a vestige of the times when Rome's citizenry would loot the Pope's residence after his death, and the need to secure the place from imposters or usurpers.
For purposes of context, the close-up didn't occur for some ten days following the death of John Paul II. Especially given Benedict's preparations to step down, however – not to mention the 20,000-volume library he brought with him to the Apostolic Palace – it is notable that no moving vans have been spotted just yet.