It is a bizarre feeling when, having been locked inside history writing a novel, you come up for air and find everyone talking about the place you have just been.
I was boarding a plane back from Morocco last Monday when someone in the queue ahead of me said, “Have you heard? The Pope’s resigned!”
The Pope? Resigned! How can that be, I thought. This is not a post that comes with a pension: this is a job for life that ends in death. And believe me, I should know. After four years of researching Blood and Beauty, a novel on the Borgias, I have hovered, imaginatively speaking, over a number of papal deathbeds. Indeed the novel begins with one of them in August 1492 when Innocent X11, old and decrepit is taking his last breaths. Rumours are flying round Rome that his doctor has been feeding him blood drained from young Roman boys to keep him alive, while a wet nurse in an outer chamber has provided breast milk for desert. In the end none of it works. The minute he is pronounced dead, their world’s media – dozens of ambassadors and chroniclers – send out the headlines via messengers on fast horses, with the tastiest gossip tagged at the end of the dispatch.
If the ways of communication may have changed, our appetite for a colourful story certainly hasn’t and back in February 2013 the news is even stranger. The Pope is resigning. We are looking at a moment with no real historical precedent. And why? Why is he going? Because he’s weak and ill? What does one expect when a man is eighty-five? But throughout history popes have been old men, many of them old or older than this one. Calixtus III (the first Spanish Pope and Rodrigo Borgia’s uncle) was the same age as Benedict when he was elected. He was also chronically ill. Nevertheless, for three years he managed to rule Christendom from his bedchamber where he spent his time haranguing kings and princes to raise money for another crusade against the Turks.
So what exactly is going on now in Rome? Could this be the Papacy entering the twenty-first century? It would make some sense. The Church, like any huge global organisation, needs a CEO who is physically and mentally up to the job. Especially now that that job involves handling a tsunami of revealed corruption. While sex and money scandals in the church are hardly new, what has changed is our attitudes to children and sexual abuse as well as the willingness of victims to speak out against the power of the church. Certainly times are challenging and it is possible that a man who needs a mobile platform to get from his bedroom to the council chamber simply cannot give what the job demands.
Except if you believe in the doctrines of the church, you believe that the Pope is the Pope because God, working through the cardinals, put him there and so it surely up to God to decide when to take him away.
I should add here that I have another interest in these things. I was seven when my first Pope died and family lore has it that I cried for hours. (Actually I think I quite enjoyed crying – I later saw the film “Spartacus” twice because knowing that it was going to end sadly, I could start crying at the beginning.) Still, my reaction to the Pope was more than mere melodrama. I was a young Catholic girl and, he, as the head of the Catholic flock, was my second father. Of course his going was a reason for grief.
And that surely is the problem now. Good fathers don’t just up and leave the family because they are getting on a bit. On the contrary, the way they handle ageing, pain and infirmity is actually part of their role. Just as their life should be example to us, so should their death. Think about John Paul II. This much-loved and charismatic Pope met an agonising end from Parkinson’s disease. His decline, marked by growing suffering and incapacity was common knowledge with a public following who expressed their love and support. I remember watching Italian MTV in bars all over Italy while messages of love for the Pope from thousands of young people ran as subtitles under the music. Some would say his painful journey to death mirrored that of Christ’s own. Throughout history Catholicism has preached that man can find comfort in pain through the contemplation of the suffering of Our Lord who died for our sins. If you believe that – and millions of Catholics do – then John Paul’s death was inspirational.
So what is Pope Benedict offering in its stead? The pleasures of early retirement? Slipping off to do some spiritual gardening? It just doesn’t have the same potency. Neither does it work in terms of some of the deeper concerns of religion in the west. We are at a moment when secular liberalism is pushing for people to take control of their own deaths, with the Right to Die movement growing ever stronger. In the face of threat, John Paul’s way of dying was an act of strategic brilliance.
If there is more to Pope Benedict’s resignation than meets the eye, then it will take a while to find out what it is. Meanwhile, as the rumour mill spins its wheels in the dust and the world’s media stake out their places in that Cecil B de Mille Square outside the Vatican, the power of history and tradition now take over. We are about to experience a papal conclave: the oldest boys club in the world. While the cameras stay outside, our imagination can get in anywhere. Even to the Sistine chapel itself.
History has bequeathed to us some wonderful stories. Watch this space.