Former Swiss Guard member reflects on his time at The Vatican

10:31 PM, Feb 28, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON, D.C. (CNN) - Benedict XVI has officially stepped down as pope Thursday. The Swiss Guard, the military unit assigned to protect the pope, ended their service to him as his resignation became official.

In Andreas Widmer's opinion, this is a man who was simply worn down, and now has the weight of dealing with the public demands of his job finally lifted.

"When you're an introvert, you lose energy by being with other people," Widmer said.

Did he lose energy?

"I think he lost energy by being with people," Widmer said.

For two years in the late 1980s, Andreas Widmer was a member of the elite Swiss Guard, the men who've protected the Holy Father for more than 500 years. Widmer guarded Pope John Paul II, but also knew Benedict when he a rising cardinal named Joseph Ratzinger.

"John Paul was somebody who could really work with a huge crowd. And really get to (reach people) with his experience in theater, in philosophy, in poetry and everything; he could really reach people like that," Widmer said. "Benedict is brilliant at one-on-one and small group interactions."

Widmer, an author who now teaches at Catholic University, said as a Swiss Guard, you never spoke to the pope or a cardinal unless he addressed you first, but he said he and Benedict would chat when the then-cardinal was waiting to see Pope John Paul II.

"...completely open, like I can talk to you," Widmer said of Benedict.

What was he like to talk to?

"Very, very other-directed. So he would ask me what my interests were and how I felt and how I saw things," Widmer said.

As well as a sense a humor, it seems. Widmer remembers an incident when Benedict offered to sign Widmer's copy of a pretty thick book that Benedict had written.

"And when I gave it to him he says, 'So, you're really reading this?' And I said, 'Well, I'm trying.' And he says, 'Well it helps to do it in small steps,'" Widmer said.

But Widmer also suffered a personal crisis as a member of the Swiss Guard, spending his first Christmas away from home. It was Pope John Paul II, he said, who helped him see things through.

"And I sort of had a meltdown. And right at that moment he comes out of his apartment. And he noticed. And he reached out to me, and he thanked me for being there and he gave me courage," Widmer said.

Widmer admitted to crying outside the pope's apartment.

"Although I stopped crying when he showed up, but he noticed my red eyes," he said.

As for what's to come for Benedict's successor, Widmer said the top job is not what we think.
"The pope is the end of your life. You have to give up all privacy. You're basically locked in. You can't go where you want to go," he said. "Everything lose your friends. You lose your family. You're a prisoner. Not one cardinal wants to be pope."

Benedict didn't want to be pope?

"No way," Widmer said. "He wanted to go back home and write books."

Widmer said cardinals go into the Sistine Chapel for the papal conclave trying to avoid making eye contact with others.

"Nobody wants to be pope," he said.

The protection of Benedict now falls to Vatican police. The Swiss Guard left the papal summer home where Benedict gave a final blessing, bringing his papacy to a formal end.


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