By Maria Wiering
After Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI resigned Feb. 28, he traveled 15 miles southeast from Vatican City to Castel Gandolfo, a summer villa where he spent a significant amount of time during his eight years as pontiff. He left as the sun was setting and bathing Rome in gold – a fitting canvas for his farewell.
I find it telling that he immediately left the city for the country, at a moment when the world’s eyes are fixed on Rome.
I’m sure a desire to avoid the spotlight influenced his decision to leave town as the cardinals prepared for the conclave. Without a modern-day model of a living person with past-pope status, Benedict’s potential sojourn in Rome after the resignation would have been open to misinterpretation. At Castel Gandolfo, little can be misconstrued about his intentions. He is retiring, in every sense of the word.
I visited Castel Gandolfo several years ago, and it’s no rustic outpost. Still, it is serene, with verdant, wild gardens spilling from Roman ruins – a place to walk, to think, to pray.
It is also a place to work.
Castel Gandolfo has an apiary and vineyard, gifts to Pope Benedict last year from an Italian organization that promotes farm-friendly policy and local foods. The farm also has an olive grove, fruit trees, greenhouses, dairy cows, meat chickens and laying hens.
Now, I very much doubt that we will find Benedict milking cows in the early morning. He is much more likely to spend time at his piano or writing desk. However, he seems to have always had a place in his heart for farmers, and he had similar aspirations to sow, plant and reap – souls, not seeds. He used agrarian language on the day of his papal election, when he called himself “a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.”
As crocuses and tulips peek through Maryland’s winter ground, gardeners and farmers anticipate spring planting, and city-dwellers await the reopening of farmers’ markets, the signs of spring dovetail with Benedict’s retreat, in a sense of getting back to basics – after a long period of waiting, a reconnecting with creation, a reintroduction to the cycle of seasons and life. It’s a reminder that the earth has it own rhythm, completely foreign to the 9-to-5 grind.
Watching Benedict soar in a helicopter over the outskirts of Rome to his lakeside retreat reminded me how beautiful the Italian countryside is. It’s a beauty he will also find inside the Vatican gardens, where a monastery is being prepared for his permanent residence.
Benedict has chosen to spend whatever years he has left amid natural beauty, beginning in the newness of springtime.
Intentionally or not, his retreat directs our eyes to the fact that the “world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerard Manly Hopkins put it. Though Benedict may be admittedly tired,
“… nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”
Maria Wiering is a staff writer for the Catholic Review.
Copyright (c) March 8, 2013 CatholicReview.org