Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI briefly returned to the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo on Sunday, where he spent time in prayer and attended a small concert in his honor.
He was accompanied by four ‘memores domini’, consecrated women belonging to the Communion and Liberation movement. When he was Pope, they looked after him in the apostolic palace, and continue to do so now as Pope Emeritus, in his new residence in the Vatican Gardens.
During his three hour visit, Benedict XVI recited the Rosary while taking a stroll in the villa gardens, just as he used to do when he was Roman Pontiff. He also attended a short piano recital of classical music performed in his honor before returning to the Vatican in the evening.
Benedict XVI spent his first three months in retirement at the papal villas in the town, 20 miles outside Rome. The residence, on a hilltop overlooking a volcanic lake and with its own farm, has always been dear to him. But despite there being a Pope and a Pope Emeritus, neither is living there this summer, the traditional residence for popes from July until October.
Pope Francis is spending all season at the Domus Sanctae Marthae residence at the Vatican, partly to give an example of austerity, but also so that he can take a “working vacation” and prepare his reforms of the Roman Curia and the Vatican Bank. It is the longest time the papal villas have remained vacant over the summer since the papal transitions during the summer months of 1978.
Italian media have been reporting that the absence of Pope Francis and Benedict XVI is taking its toll on businesses in the town. Most traders there make most of their living in the summer months, and are reported to be disappointed and saddened by the lack of the town’s greatest draw. During Benedict XVI’s pontificate, his Sunday and Wednesday addresses would bring thousands to the hilltop town, but this season numbers have dwindled to a trickle. One businessman, quoted by the Italian news agency ANSA, said business was “collapsing” while another said she thought it was “a joke” when she found out Pope Francis would not be staying there.
But when I visited the town on the Feast of the Assumption, traders seemed more upbeat, helped by the influx of a crowd of pilgrims numbering over 10,000. “We have a high regard for Pope Francis,” said Diana, owner of an art shop on the central piazza. “He has chosen not to take a vacation, to keep working and maybe that is a good thing.” But she said “we want him here and hopefully he’ll come next year.”
Carla, owner of a souvenir shop, also seemed hardly perturbed, saying that although the absence of a pope has caused some hardship, she liked Pope Francis’ “austere approach to things”. She was confident he would be staying next year.
Castel Gandolfo’s mayor, Milvia Monachesi, has suggested the town perhaps needs to find a new economic model, one not based solely on religious tourism. She argued the town in itself has a lot to offer on account of its history and beautiful location. Some have proposed asking the Vatican to open up the gardens of the papal villas to the public as a way of attracting more tourists.
Monachesi, however, is confident this is just a short-term problem, and took comfort in the fact that Pope John XXIII also didn’t visit the town during the early years of his pontificate. “I’m sure the Pope will come to Castel Gandolfo in the coming years,” she said.