Some consider Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to be the “thinking man’s Pope”. A theologian and scholar by training he wrote three encyclicals, many apostolic letters, two popular books about the historical Jesus and numerous other publications; a Pope as industrious and prolific as his bees.
In September 2011 eight beehives containing more than 500,000 bees were given to then Pope Benedict by the Italian agricultural organization ‘Coldiretti’ to celebrate the Day for the Protection of Creation. The group promotes agricultural education and lobbies to protect agricultural land and encourage farm-friendly policies. The half million bees were transported to the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo and were expected to produce more than 600 pounds of organic wildflower honey each year pollinating the orchards and flowers of the pontifical farm that is also the home to 25 dairy cows and an assortment of hens and roosters.
Bees have always found favor with the fathers of the Church. St. John Chrysostom explains that the bee is more honored than other animals, “not because it labors, but because it labors for others”. Pope Pius XII called them “fascinating little creatures of God” writing that there can be many lessons drawn from the “holy wisdom in these tiny humming insects”. Urban VIII, a 17th century Pope whose family coat of arms featured three bees, was particularly partial to l’ape. We might go so far as to designate him their papal patron. Bees seem to have found so much favor with him that there are architectural monuments all over Rome swarming with bees including St. Peter’s Basilica where bees can be found decorating thebaldachin altar.
Benedict XVI’s departure from the Vatican on Thursday was a fly by to the faithful as he left the papacy aboard Shepherd One heading for the extraterritorial papal residence of Castel Gandolfo. While “volo papale”, Benedict got to see some of the most iconic scenes of Rome on what must have been a bitter sweet end to his 8 year tenure as Pope. Church bells rang throughout Rome and I found myself humming Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon as the helicopter passed over an aerial landscape of Rome that few get to see. It was truly a spectacular view.
He flew over the Vatican gardens, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Roman Coliseum with a breathtaking approach to the hills outside Rome to Castel Gandolfo. The papal palace, rebuilt on the ruins of the former castle of the Gandolfi, overlooks the mountains and the deep-blue waters of Lake Albano. The strategic site was once used by astronomers of the Papal See who viewed the stars from the Vatican Observatory on the palace’s roof. The aerial view is as uplifting as any on the planet but the idyllic setting is awash with layers of a distressful history both ancient and modern.
The grounds partly occupy the foundations of the summer residence of the Roman Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) who once persecuted early Christians. In 1939 Pius XII made a global appeal to the world from Castel Gandolfo in an effort to prevent Word War II saying “Nothing is lost with peace, everything may be lost in a war”. During the war refugees were hidden and housed on the grounds of the castle where at times the papal chambers were used as maternity ward for pregnant refugees. There are reports that some 40 children were born at Castel Gandofo during this period resulting in many Italian citizens being named Pio (the Italian version of Pius) or Eugenio, Pius Xll’s given first name.
For some the legacy of Benedict’s papacy can only be viewed in a context of troubling times; for others Benedict’s aerial departure from the Vatican is a metaphor for a beautiful view of a faith that endures with great strength and promise for the future.