Pope Benedict may be retreating into a life of prayer, but the first pontiff to retire since the Middle Ages will -- physically at least -- remain at the very heart of the Vatican. The convent of Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church) is being renovated, and, following Benedict's sudden resignation, will offer him a substantial four-story modern home. It comes complete with contemporary chapel, garden and a roof terrace looking out from a rise dominated by the Holy See's TV transmission tower.
The 20-year-old gated compound could hardly be more central to the 100-acre Vatican City, the microstate inside central Rome where Benedict will remain head of state until Feb. 28. It lies about 200 yards to the rear of St. Peter's Basilica, where his successor may be consecrated next month, in time for Easter. Once renovation work is complete at Mater Ecclesiae, founded in 1994 as a convent for a succession of female monastic orders by Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, the new pensioner will be able to move in. The nuns, who occupied up to 12 cells in the upper floors of the building, have moved out. Who else will live in the compound to serve the former pope is unclear.
Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera said that the refurbishment had begun in November -- at a time when, it seems, few if anyone in the Vatican had an inkling of what was on Benedict's mind. French journalist Charles de Pechpeyrou, who recently visited the building, called it simple and uncluttered, secluded within the Vatican gardens but offering sweeping vistas. From outside the chapel, he said, "one gets a spectacular view over the apse of St. Peter's Basilica, below, over the city of Rome, and on the horizon, to the sometimes snow-capped peaks of the Apennines -- in short, a landscape which surely cannot fail to remind the pope of his native Bavaria."
The gardens, though, offer a haven of only mildly polluted tranquility, where Benedict might encounter his successor strolling the neat lawns, among the lofty palms and vibrant flower beds, where fountains murmur softly in the background. Opting for the convent, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said, was the outgoing pontiff's personal choice. Having passed it daily while walking in prayer, Benedict had several times visited the nuns. The location clearly appealed to him.
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