The pope as a retiree

Transition can be tough, even for a pontiff

February 27, 2013|Susan Reimer

Pope Benedict XVI retires Thursday, and he leaves the workplace the way many of us would like to — on his own terms.

He wasn't laid off at 50 with few transferable skills, required to retrain or reinvent himself and then compete for work with people half his age.

His job wasn't outsourced (although the conclave set to choose his successor may elect someone from another country to do his job).

He is 85, but he didn't have to keep working because the recession wiped out his meager 401(k) and he didn't have the money to retire. He isn't supporting elderly parents or kids who can't seem to find a toehold in a lousy economy.

No, Pope Benedict's exit is enviable. He left when he felt he could no longer do the job, and all his friends were sad to see him go.

And now he will do what all retirees do first: take a vacation. His will be at Castel Gandolfo, a luxurious lakeside retreat in the hills southeast of Rome, where he will stay for perhaps two months.

In other ways, Pope Benedict's retirement will be like everybody else's. And he may find the adjustment as difficult as most retirees do.

It isn't easy to go from 60 mph to full stop, but that's what he will do. It is a shame he could not have dialed it back to part-time pope, or paid consultant pope, because experts believe that a gradual exit from the work world makes for a less stressful transition.

Instead, he will immediately lose the social connections he had at work, and the structure of his days will disappear. He will go from being surrounded by dozens of Vatican officials dealing with weighty questions, meeting international leaders and blessing crowds numbering in the tens of thousands to the daily company of a handful of nuns in a Vatican monastery converted for his use. With his books and his cat.

He says he will be "hidden from the world." That's probably how a lot of retirees might describe their lives, but I don't think that is what they hoped for.

The pope has said he wants to assume a life of prayer and reflection, but soon he will meet the gremlins that come in the night and disturb the sleep of the newly retired.

What have I accomplished in the life that was given me? Did I spend too much time at work and not enough with people who matter to me? What do I have to show for it? And what do I do with the time that is left to me?

He has probably made all sorts of promises to himself: to exercise or lose a little weight or read all those books on his nightstand. Maybe he's thought about taking painting classes, volunteering, spending more time outdoors or writing a book.

But without the alarm clock and the punch clock, he may find his days slipping away with nothing accomplished. Without the structure of work and with an expanse of time ahead of him, he may find it difficult to be motivated to do these things. His friends and colleagues, still working hard at the Vatican, may not have time for him anymore, and he may feel lonely without them, or he may miss the challenge of working with them.

Meanwhile, those former colleagues have made it very clear that his ideas, let alone his interference in his old workplace, will not be welcome.

All of this may combine to depress Pope Benedict. Perhaps his health will decline because of a poor outlook.

Yes, the one thing the pope may have in common with the rest of us working stiffs is that he may find retirement as much a challenge as working, or more so. He had what so many of us do not — control over the timing of his exit — but he may not be able to escape the difficulties that come with such a significant change in life.

Those close to the pope say he has been prayerfully considering his resignation for more than a year. I hope he was working on a plan, too.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on

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