Decoding the Papacy: Benedict XVI's cryptic frustration

The Pope delivers his message concluding a weeklong spiritual retreat at the Vatican, 23 February 2013
Image caption Benedict XVI has been putting out coded phrases which reveal his frustration at the administrative infighting he has had to endure among mainly Italian careerist clerics

Popes tend to be prodigal with words. They make thousands of speeches and religious homilies every year. Nevertheless, papal pronouncements rarely hit the headlines.

But occasionally a single word or phrase shines out like a beacon that illuminates the arcane world of the Vatican.

One of these occasions was when at Easter 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, leading a Good Friday meditation at Rome's Colosseum only days before the death of Pope John Paul II and his own election as Pope Benedict XVI, referred to the "filth" besmirching the Catholic Church.

We were at a loss to understand immediately to what he was referring.

As we now know, it was a reference to the clerical sexual abuse scandals which were damaging the credibility of the Catholic Church, not only in the United States, but also in many other countries.

Coded phrases

The scandals were already causing deep anxiety to the future Pope. For two decades, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had held a key Vatican post - head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also known as the Holy Office, responsible for priestly discipline.

He was one of the best informed persons in the entire Vatican about the scandals' impact.

Many American bishops were simply frightened and had gone into denial instead of calling the local police, often just switching offending priests to other parishes.

Image caption Many think dysfunction inside the Holy See pushed the Pope into his "grave" decision to step down

Deciphering the Pope's often dense theological language, analysing his long sentences replete with subordinate clauses, makes the selection of pithy soundbites a real challenge to Vatican radio and TV reporters.

Typically, Pope Benedict even chose to announce his surprise resignation in a series of sentences in Latin - a dead language.

Yet in the dying days of his relatively short eight-year papacy, Pope Benedict XVI has been putting out new coded phrases which, upon analysis, reveal the extent of his frustration at the administrative infighting he has had to endure among mainly Italian careerist clerics inside the Vatican.

Now there are new code words to decipher.

In a homily at his final Ash Wednesday mass in Saint Peter's basilica earlier in the month, he said the Catholic Church had been "defiled" by internal divisions, and suggested that he had been surrounded by "too much individualism and personal rivalry".

This sense of dysfunction inside the Holy See - combined with considerations of failing health - pushed him to make what he has admitted was a "grave" decision to step down.

Papal compliments

The Pope has also publicly praised an Italian prelate, a recent newcomer to the College of Cardinals, 70-year-old Milanese Biblical scholar Gianfranco Ravasi - thus, according to Vatican insiders, endorsing him as a possible successor.

Cardinal Ravasi was chosen by the Pope to lead a six-day traditional Lenten retreat inside the Apostolic Palace during which the Pope each year cancels all public engagements and remains closeted for a period of spiritual meditation among his closest advisers.

Image caption Pope Benedict praised Cardinal Ravasi for his 'brilliant' preaching at the Lenten spiritual exercises

At the end of what are called the spiritual exercises, Pope Benedict complimented Cardinal Ravasi for his "brilliant" preaching, sent him a personal thank-you letter and in addition invited him for a private audience.

Cardinal Ravasi, according to those present, was hard-hitting in his criticism of the current poisonous internal atmosphere at the Vatican. He did not mince his words, deploring, in front of the Pope himself, the "divisions, dissent, careerism and jealousies" that he said afflict the Vatican bureaucracy.

Cardinal Ravasi, a witty, intellectual priest who peppers his speech with wide-ranging literary as well as Biblical quotations, thus emerges as a leading player among the Vatican insiders who are going to dominate the crucial closed-door discussions before the whole electoral college moves into a secret conclave during March to choose Benedict's successor.

Now I am not going to put my money on the Italian cardinal as the most papabile candidate. The field is as yet too wide open to name names.

But experience and skill in deciphering Vatican code words is going to be more important than ever in teasing out the complexities of the behind-the-scenes process of choosing a new pontiff over the next three weeks.