The Pope’s decision to renounce the papacy was taken after his trip to Mexico and Cuba, when the Pope suffered a head injury and his collaborators treated him in secret.
The director of Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Gian Maria Vian – one of the figures who accompanied the Pope on his trip to Central America - confirmed the news in his editorial last Monday. This was Benedict XVI’s last cross-Atlantic trip as Pope.
One of the prelates that formed part of the Pope’s entourage during the visit has revealed to Italian newspaper La Stampa that during that an accident took place during the papal pilgrimage, thankfully with no serious consequences. The Pope was hurt on the head and journalists were not informed about this.
“At the start of this highly important international trip, the Pope confided he was facing it with a “penitential spirit.” On 25 March, the Pope’s last day in León – the prelate explained – we were in the house of the Capuchin Sisters and Benedict XVI’s head was bleeding as he got up. His collaborators asked him what had happened. The Pope said he had not fallen but had banged into the basis about an hour before the meeting. He had got up to go to the bathroom and as usually happens when one gets up in the middle of the night in a house that is not one’s own, he didn’t find the light switch immediately so he moved about in the dark.”
The Pope had a similar but nastier accident in Inrod, in Italy’s Val d’Aosta region on the night of 16 July 2009. He fell from his bed, fracturing his wrist.
“Even the pillow had blood stains on it – La Stampa’s source said – and there was a drop or two on the carpet as well. All stains were removed immediately. But the injury was not serious and presented no cause for concern. The wound was concealed by the Pope’s zucchetto (ecclesiastical skullcap) and was masked by the Pope’s thick hair.” “There were no plasters on show – the prelate added – as was the case with John Paul II, I recall well, when he visited Poland in June 1999.”
The Pope did not complain once in the hours that followed, constantly surrounded by big crowds. “He had not problem wearing the mitre which we placed on his head during the mass celebrated in the Guanajuato Bicentenario Park - the prelate said. Everything went smoothly and only in the evening when we returned to the Sisters’ residence was the wound carefully treated.”
This incident, which was seen as irrelevant at the time, has been interpreted quite differently by the prelate who was part of the papal entourage, in light of the public revelation made by the director of L’Osservatore Romano. “That day, after dinner – he said – I was told about the jokes exchanged between the Pope and his personal doctor. As he treated the Pope’s head wound, Dr. Patrizio Polisca had remarked: “You see Holy Father why I am so critical of these trips?” With that dash of irony which is so familiar to those who know Benedict XVI well, the Pope replied: “I am also critical...”.”
The prelate was keen to add that “ it was really important for the Pope to embrace the Mexican people, all the crowds of faithful in that big country which had been the first nation to welcome Benedict XVI’s predecessor at the start of his pontificate. But he was also aware of the fact that he no longer had the physical strength to deal with such long journeys, the jetlag that followed and the burden of public commitments.”
To what extent did this incident influence the Pope’s decision to resign, a move he had pondered on for some time? It is difficult to say. Last Monday, Benedict XVI’s brother, Georg Ratzinger, stated: “The Pope’s personal doctor had expressly told him that he should avoid transatlantic trips or long journeys. He was no longer in a condition to travel long distances.”
The fact remains that that visit - the Pope’s last transatlantic trip – stuck in Ratzinger’s mind as a point of no return. “The Pope successfully carried out all his commitments during the visit” – Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, said, confirming the news published by L’Osservatore Romano. “But he realised the physical toll of such trans-Atlantic journeys” would be too much for him in the future. It is possible that the accident the Pope had in the Capuchin Sisters’ residence - which could have had far more serious consequences and may have meant him having to be admitted to hospital far from Rome – contributed to the Pope’s historic decision to resign, nine months later.