CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy » This cramped hilltop town outside of Rome is in its final preparations for the arrival on Thursday afternoon of an honored guest: Pope Benedict XVI, who will commence his new life as "pope emeritus," one of the titles by which he will be known.
Town officials have been gearing up for a rousing — as far as ecclesiastical events go — welcome, with ringing bells, processional torches and the distribution of religious images with the pope’s countenance on one side and a prayer on the back.
"We want to express affection and solidarity for a choice that left us perplexed and stunned," said the Rev. Pietro Diletti, the parish priest of the church of San Tommaso di Villanova, where the pope traditionally celebrates mass each Aug. 15, the feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The pope will spend some two months here as he waits for the restoration of more permanent lodgings in a convent inside the Vatican where he will live out his life, "hidden to the world," as he said this month. And as the College of Cardinals begins to congregate next week ahead of a March conclave to choose Benedict’s successor, the pope’s off-season stint in Castel Gandolfo, about 15 miles southeast of Vatican City, is an added assurance that he won’t exert any undue influence in the selection.
For nearly 400 years, in fact, the town of Castel Gandolfo has played host to a succession of pontiffs seeking solace from the stifling Roman summer.
The papacy first laid claim to Castel Gandolfo — originally a small fortress belonging to the Savelli family — in 1596, but it was 30 years later that it officially became the papal summer residence, when Pope Urban VIII built a new wing on the side of the fortress that overlooks Lake Albano. Some years later, the renowned Baroque architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini developed a second wing, under Pope Alexander VII, and over the years new lots of land with their villas were acquired and elaborate gardens were developed.
The pontifical villas of Castel Gandolfo cover a triangle-shaped swath of the town, totaling about 135 acres. A working farm provides produce — fruits and vegetables, oil, eggs and dairy products — to the pope’s kitchens, both here and in Vatican City. Though the villas are under pontifical jurisdiction and high walls and secure gates bar entry to outsiders, there is considerable interaction with the town.
"Formally we are two states, but in fact it’s all one community," said the mayor, Milvia Monachesi, noting that a number of its 9,000 residents worked for the papal villas, mostly tending to the gardens.
The pope’s current butler is from Castel Gandolfo. He replaced Paolo Gabriele, the manservant convicted of leaking confidential Vatican documents, an episode that weighed heavily on the final year of Benedict’s pontificate. Sentenced to 18 months in prison in October, Gabriele was later pardoned by the pope.
Townspeople of a certain age still recall the protection given by Pope Pius XII after Allied troops landed in Anzio in 1944 and the area became an open war zone. Some 12,000 people found refuge in the pontifical villas. "Around here there are many people named Pio or Pia, Eugenio or Eugenia," in honor of Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pius XII, said Pier Paolo Turoli, an administrator of the Pontifical Villas at Castel Gandolfo.
Like other towns in the Alban hills, Castel Gandolfo is a popular year-round weekend destination for Romans escaping the capital’s chaos.
"But when the pope is here, it becomes the center of the world," Monachesi said, with a surge in pilgrims, tourists and the occasional head of state with accompanying entourage. "We’re small, but we’re also very international."
It was natural, residents say, for Benedict to want to return to "a place that he loved," the mayor said. A plaque outside city hall quotes the pope’s own 2011 endorsement: "Here I find everything. Mountains, a lake, and I can even see the sea… And good people."
The pope will arrive here by helicopter on Thursday afternoon, and will address the members of the diocese of Albano from the apostolic palace in the square in the final hours of his pontificate, which will end at 8 p.m.
"Symbolically, at that time we will see the gates of the palace close, and the Swiss Guards will make their departure," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said at a news briefing on Tuesday, speaking of the armed forces that have served as papal bodyguards since 1506. The Vatican police will take over the protection of the former pontiff.
The pope will reside in his summer apartment here with his two secretaries and four memores, the laywomen of the community Memores Domini who care for him, said Saverio Petrillo, the director of the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo. The intimate setting "allows for a more familial life," he said.
Benedict will have access to landscaped gardens built over the ruins of the sprawling villa used as a summer residence by the Emperor Domitian, who ruled in the first century. "Castel Gandolfo is one place where the pope can find privacy," Turoli said. "And it’s our job to ensure that he has a restful stay here."
Anna Maria Vici Torrigiani, whose shop here makes cassocks and church decorations, last year presented the pope with an icon of the Virgin Mary against a background that depicts Lake Albano and Castel Gandolfo.
"I am hoping that he will take the icon with him when he goes into the convent in the Vatican," she said. "Given he won’t be able to see the world any more, I hope he will bring a bit of Castel Gandolfo with him."