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Friday 19 September 2014

Inside the private life of the Pope

The ageing actor Peter O'Toole is supposed to have said that his "idea of Paradise is walking from one smoke-filled room into another smoke-filled room and my only exercise is walking behind the coffins of dead friends who took exercise".

In an interview released in book form today, Pope Benedict (83) says that he doesn't use the exercise bike that was set up in the Vatican for him by his former physician.

"I don't get to it at all -- and don't need it at the moment, thank God," says the Pope. Asked if he thinks like Winston Churchill: "No sports!" the Pope replies "Yes!" While he doesn't sport large cigars, he is known to smoke.

So what goes on up there in the Apostolic Palace where the Pope lives? Apparently he finishes his working day at 6pm and retires to his apartment. However, he is not fully finished. He usually has dinner with some of his most important advisors. From 8.45pm as a rule, the Pope has his privacy.

Yet what can he do in his free time? He loves playing the piano but has been denied the company of his beloved cats. It's not like he can pop out to the Borgo Pio beside the Vatican and have a pizza.

Not surprisingly, this academic Pope says he must study and read documents. "There is always a great deal of work left over. But with the papal family, with the four women from the Memores Domini community and the two secretaries, there are meals in common, too; those are moments of relaxation."

Apparently, the Pope sits down with his secretaries and watches the news with them "but sometimes we watch a DVD together as a group".

Pope John Paul II said, not surprisingly, that his favourite film was Schindler's List. What films does this German Pope like? "There is a very beautiful film about St Josephine Bakhita, an African woman, which we watched recently.

"And then we like to watch Don Camillo and Peppone (a TV series about a priest detective)."

So the Pope has a private life which he shares, almost like a little family. "We celebrate Christmas together, listen to the holiday music, and exchange gifts. The feast days of our patron saints are celebrated, and occasionally we also sing Evening Prayer together. So we celebrate feasts together. And then, besides our common meals, there is above all Holy Mass in common in the morning."

So does the Pope get to take off the white robes and chill in jeans and a sweater?

"No," he says. "That is a legacy left to me by the former second secretary of Pope John Paul II, Monsignor Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki, who told me: 'The Pope always wore a cassock, and so must you.'"

Asked about his old watch, he replies simply: "It belonged to my sister, who left it to me. When she died, the watch went to me." The Pope says that he does not have a salary or a briefcase. All he owns appears to be a collection of books that he has built up over the years.

The Pope goes on to say that he receives letters from around the world and gifts of money. Asked what he does with the money, he says: "[It is] Not for me personally, but so that I can help others with it. And I also find it very moving that simple people enclose something and tell me, 'I know that you have to help so much, and I want to do a little, too.' In this respect there are all kinds of consolations. And then there are the Wednesday audiences with the individual meetings. Letters arrive from old friends, occasionally visits, too, although of course that has become increasingly difficult."

Many who know the Vatican call it the "gilded cage". Reading what the Pope has to say about living there, it is a simple life, but a limited existence.

Garry O'Sullivan is editor of The Irish Catholic

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