Pope Benedict XVI (image by Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty)
Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
On Ash Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI will do as he has since 2006 - distribute ashes to the faithful as Lent begins.
But this will be the last major liturgical event of his time as Vicar of Christ, and by the end of these days of devotion, a different pope will celebrate Easter Mass at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
When Benedict retires at 8 p.m. Feb. 28, the Vatican will methodically erase the symbols of his papacy and any fears - or hopes - that he'll still be seen as the voice of the church during or after the election for his successor.
"Pope Benedict will surely say absolutely nothing about the process of the election and not intervene in any way in the process," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said at a news conference Tuesday, according to Catholic News Service.
Experts say there can be no public confusion on who speaks for the church of 1.2 billion once a successor is elected.
A look at what's ahead for Benedict and for the church:
- A change in title: Benedict will probably be known again by his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger, with the title of bishop emeritus of Rome. There's no such thing as pope emeritus, and he can't return to his former status as a cardinal. That's because cardinals, known as princes of the church, have responsibilities for its governance, church historian Matthew Bunson says. He won't even keep his Twitter handle. The pope's personal account, @pontifex, fortunately has a generic name in case the next pope - or an aide lifting quotes from his speeches - tweets 140 characters of inspiration now and then.
- Smashed symbols: Following the church's canon law guidance for procedures on the death of a pope, the symbols of the papacy - the ring of the fisherman and his official seal - will be destroyed, Lombardi said. The date for the conclave is also set by canon law. It must be 15 to 20 days after the papal throne is vacated. That means around the middle of March.
- A time of rest: Benedict-soon-to-be-Ratzinger will spend March, maybe longer, away from the Vatican at the pope's summer residence while his future residence, a monastery in the Vatican Gardens, is remodeled. The pope's summer home is a place the 85-year-old can rest, said Lombardi, who acknowledged that Ratzinger has had a pacemaker for a decade and recently, in a secret "routine" operation, had the batteries changed.
- A quiet future: The former pope will be out of the global spotlights. He can't speak out on issues the way ex-U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton do. "This is not a man who ever loved the public stage," says political scientist and Jesuit priest Thomas Reese. "He's going to be happy to sit by the fire reading theology books."
Neither can he ever publish his not-quite-finished fourth encyclical - a teaching on faith many expected to be issued in 2013, Bunson says.
"An encyclical has magisterial weight. It is an infallible teaching only a pope can issue. The fact that it's not finished adds to the picture of the state of his health," Bunson says.
"I believe he is no longer physically capable of the effort, and he quit rather than put the entire church through the experience of watching a pope grow increasingly infirm and die," Bunson says, recalling the last years of Pope John Paul II who suffered with Parkinson's. "Ratzinger was well positioned in those years to see how everything slowed down in the governance of the church."