THE Pope had a secret operation recently to replace the battery in his pacemaker, it emerged overnight – but the Vatican denies it had anything to do with his shock resignation.
Italy's Il Sole 24 newspaper reported the operation took place at the Pius XI clinic in Rome just under three months ago, and the Pope recovered swiftly enough to deliver a Sunday service the next day.
Pope Benedict XVI ... quitting due to health reasons. Photo: AP
Many papal observers were unaware that Benedict had a pacemaker, which was fitted years before he took office, after a stroke.
According to the report, the operation caused the Pope to reflect on his health and future.
In announcing his decision the Pope said “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
However the Vatican yesterday reiterated that Benedict's resignation was not down to any particular illness or condition. Its spokesman also attempted to dampen speculation that he was more unwell than had been publicly revealed.
“The Pope is well and his soul is serene,” Fr Lombardi said. “He did not resign the pontificate because he is ill but because of the fragility that comes with old age.”
Fr Lombardi also tackled rumours that an extremely fatiguing trip to Cuba and Mexico last year crystallised the decision to step down.
“It was another reason in the development of Benedict's decision, but not its cause,” he said. “There is no reason to look” for another explanation than Benedict's stated reasons, he said.
Another Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, denied a link to the 'Vatileaks' scandal in which papers alleging corruption within the Vatican were leaked by the Pope's butler.
“What's interesting is how long ago this decision was made – shortly after the pope's trip to Cuba (in) March of last year, so that was before the whole butler story even broke”.
It was mainly business as usual in the Vatican yesterday, but the Pope was forced to change his schedule for the rest of the month after a rush of visitors to the Vatican, spurred by the resignation announcement.
Ash Wednesday's planned blessing and imposition of ashes, traditionally held in the Roman Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill, was moved to St Peter's instead.
Fr Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, said “a large number of participants is expected”.
The Pope's annual meeting with the pastors of Rome, set down for Thursday, has also been moved to a bigger venue. And Benedict's last general audience, scheduled the day before he leaves office on February 28, will probably be moved to St Peter's Square “to allow the faithful to say goodbye.”
Benedict will also keep appointments meeting Italian bishops and the presidents of Romania and Guatemala.
However an expected encyclical on Faith will not be published, because the text will not be ready before the Pope steps down.
Fr Lombardi said Benedict would “not interfere in any way” in the selection of the next Pope, which will begin when cardinals arrive in Rome mid-March. Instead he would “use his time for prayer and reflection.”
Speculation is still rife that the church would turn to Latin America or even Africa for Benedict's successor. One of Africa's leading candidates, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, told Associated Press that the young churches of Africa and Asia have produced “mature clergymen and prelates that are capable of exercising leadership.
However experienced Vatican observers say a European successor is more likely.
Vatican experts on canon law are still studying legal documents to work out exactly when the Pope-electing conclave will start its work in the Sistine Chapel.
It was also business as usual outside the Vatican yesterday, though tour operators said the queues were longer than usual for the time of year.
Among visitors to St Peter's were Patricia Loughlan and Jonathan Gillis, from Sydney.
MsLoughlan said her reaction to Benedict's resignation was “surprise and pleasure”.
She first read the news on the Sydney Morning Herald mobile app, then switched on CNN.
Ms Loughlan and Jonathan Gillis have been in Rome for a couple of days. Modern Catholics, "though not pilgrims, mainly tourists", they felt strongly that this was good news for the church.
"He has been a deeply conservative, very divisive and boundary-riding Pope," Ms Loughlan said yesterday.
"He was too obsessed with abortion and contraception, and the suppression of the liberal United States nuns."
Ms Loughlan said she hoped the church seized its chance to change.
"This is an opportunity for a liberal, modern, inclusive Pope who can appeal to young people all over the world," she said. "Who can embrace more progressive politics in this desperately divided world."
Ms Loughlan and Mr Gillis found it funny but appealing that Sydney's Cardinal Pell could be a possible candidate for the post.
"It would amuse the entire world to have an Australian Pope," Mr Gillis said. "It's hard to resist a feeling of pride, though."
But both said they did not like the non-inclusive, non-progressive politics of Cardinal Pell.