All the Pope's Secrets Are Beginning to Leak Out

The Atlantic Wire

Today, Pope Benedict XVI announced plans to live out his retirement "hidden from the world." That should come easy, considering how successful the Vatican has been at keeping secrets under wraps during his seven-year papacy. 

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The Associated Press's Victor L. Simpson has a story today rounding up the many revelations about Benedict's reign that came to light following his resignation announcement on Monday. Since Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005, the Vatican has been able to cover up a head injury he sustained last year in Mexico, a pacemaker he's relied on for years, and the construction of his retirement lodgings, which began months ago. With one high-profile exception — the embarrassing leak of Vatican documents in early 2012 — the  Catholic Church's leadership has proven highly skilled at keeping sensitive information from the public. Only in hindsight can we see clues about the closely-guarded secrets, and even now we're struggling to understand what these new admissions tell us about the pope's decision to step down. 

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Head injury

When it happened: Pope Benedict sustained a nasty head injury during his trip to Mexico in March, 2012, according to a report from Italian newspaper La Stampa. He accidentally banged his head in a Mexican bedroom in the middle of the night. Apparently the blow was hard enough to get blood on his hair and bedsheets. 

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When the Vatican admitted it happened: Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi confirmed reports of the head injury to the press just on Thursday. 

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What it might have to do with his retirement: Father Lombardi says this incident "didn't impact" the pope's retirement decision, though Benedict himself has said that he's retiring due to health concerns.

Pacemaker

When it happened: Vatican officials haven't put an exact date on when Pope Benedict received a pacemaker implant to keep his heart beating normally, but they did say that he's had it since his time as a cardinal. That means he's had the pacemaker since at least 2005, if not earlier. 

When the Vatican admitted it happened: This secret came to light Tuesday, when the Vatican also confirmed that Benedict underwent a secret operation to replace the pacemaker battery in December 2012. 

Clues at the time: Speculation about the pope's health has come in fits and starts, with a Reuters story from April 2012 noting his new use of a cane in public. Benedict's brother talked with journalists about two minor strokes he suffered before his election in 2005, also citing his troubles with high blood pressure and arthritis. Still, when Italian journalist Antonio Socci floated the possibility of Benedict's resignation in late 2011, Vatican officials were quick to say, "The pope's health is excellent," making no mention of his pacemaker. 

What it might have to do with his retirement: This seems to be the most likely reason as to why the pope is retiring — or at least the most likely reason he himself would give as to why he's retiring. In his 2010 book Light of the World, the pope gave readers fair warning that he planned to retire if his health ever kept him from his duties. 

Construction of his retirement residence

When it happened: The pope has to have somewhere to go once he's officially an ex-pope, and thus no longer permitted to reside in the Apostolic Palace. We now know that preparations for his next home within the Vatican City limits began in the fall of 2012.

When the Vatican admitted it happened: Vatican spokesman Father Lombardi was cagey about this on Wednesday, telling reporters, "I don't think there was a consultation of the College of the Cardinals about this." But he didn't contradict reports in the Italian media that renovation of a convent where the pope intends to live after stepping down has been going on in secret for months now. 

Clues at the time: This project was kept successfully under-wraps, though complaints last year from Vatican bankers about being overcharged for construction contracts may have hinted toward the work being planned within the Vatican City's walls. 

What it might have to do with his retirement: This revelation contradicts official assertions from earlier this week that the pope's highly personal decision was announced abruptly, with Vatican officials "surprised" by his plan to step down. 

These revelations still don't provide much insight into how child sex abuse scandals, the pope's past, or other more outlandish theories might have affected his retirement plans. And the truth is that we may never know exactly why he's stepping down. As former Rome bureau chief for United Press International Peter Shadbolt writes, the Vatican is one of the most opaque beats a journalist can cover: 

 It involves paying punctilious attention to papal routine — never missing the often dreary papal audiences on a Wednesday and the uneventful address from the Vatican on Sunday. Even then, getting blind-sided by stark Vatican announcements that drop without warning is a risk that comes with the round. While many might see shades of Dan Brown in the Vatican's media style, some of it can be attributed to the tradition of humility that comes with holding the Chair of St. Peter.

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