RPT-Benedict - a resignation foretold, if you knew where to look

Thu Feb 14, 2013 2:08am EST

(Repeats story filed late on Wednesday, with no changes)

* Film released in 2011 portrays shock resignation by pope

* Retired bishop predicted Benedict could resign

* Pope himself told author it was a possibility

By Catherine Hornby

VATICAN CITY, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Pope Benedict's resignation on Monday shocked many in the Roman Catholic world and beyond, yet for those who know where to look, there were portents aplenty.

Take Nanni Moretti's 2011 comedy-drama "Habemus Papam" - "We have a pope!" - in which a depressed and panic-stricken newly-elected pope escapes his Vatican minders for a few days before returning to announce, in his first address, that he doesn't have what it takes for the job.

Benedict, 85, managed almost eight years before citing old age and deteriorating health on Monday to explain his decision to become the first pope in more than 700 years to resign willingly rather than die in office.

For a pope, he said, "both strength of mind and body are necessary", going on to ask for "pardon for all my defects".

The Italian Sky Cinema channel has not missed its chance to rerun "Habemus Papam", where Michel Piccoli's fictional pope says that "the Church needs a guide who has the strength to bring great changes", and also asks for forgiveness.

Moretti, whose film had received a cool response from the Church, has been bombarded with calls from journalists.

"What am I supposed to say?" he told the daily La Repubblica, graciously admitting to being as amazed as everyone else by Benedict's decision. "Every now and then cinema manages to anticipate reality."

But his film was not the only omen in Rome.

Last year, Luigi Bettazzi, the retired bishop of Ivrea who has known the former Joseph Ratzinger for 50 years, speculated that some day he might choose to step down instead of reigning for life if he felt he could no longer run the Church properly.

"I wish him a long life and lasting lucidity but I think that, if the moment arrives when he sees that things are changing, I think he has the courage to resign," Bettazzi told RAI television.

At the time, the Vatican said there was no serious chance that Benedict could step down. But in fact, there were signs from Benedict himself.

Twice as pope he prayed before the remains of St Celestine, who in 1294 as Celestine V was the last pontiff to stand down willingly, and returned to his former life as a hermit. To do so, he first had to issue a decree allowing popes to resign.

If anyone wondered about Benedict's interest, they might have found a clue in a long interview that he gave to the German journalist Peter Seewald for his 2010 book, Light of the World:

"If a pope clearly realises that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office," Benedict said, "then he has a right, and under some circumstances also an obligation, to resign." (Reporting By Catherine Hornby; Editing by Kevin Liffey)