Pope Benedict XVI is walking away this week, Thursday to be exact, to live out the rest of his life in prayer. Call me a disbeliever, even a heathen, but I’m not buying it. Joseph Ratzinger is 85 years old, with better than 60 years punching the Catholic time clock, and he says he’ll retire now on Vatican grounds for as many Our Fathers and Hail Marys as he can squeeze in around daily Mass.
Well, I happen to have it from an indisputable source deep inside the Vatican Varsity Club that the story is a sham. The soon-to-be ex-pope already has purchased a 60-inch plasma TV and has turned his new digs into the Sistine Chapel of man-caves. The Bavarian-born Ratzinger just bought a new set of Callaways, has more golf balls than the Vatican has Communion hosts, and on Saturday a ComcastEuropa cable guy wired him up for NHL Center Ice and the NFL Network. All of it HD, of course, with surround sound.
“Saved himself big-time euros on the bundled package,’’ noted the VVC insider. “He’s been waiting an eternity for this. The guy’s in heaven.’’
OK, fine, maybe my infallible source is exaggerating. Maybe a lot. Truth is, no one can say for sure whether the outgoing pope knows if a soccer ball is puffed for stuffed.
“I know Pope Benedict loves to play the piano,’’ said Father Robert Imbelli, an associate professor of theology at Boston College, who spent four years living and studying in Rome. “He plays Mozart beautifully. But sports, I’m not so sure. He was a scholar from a very early age, so I tend to doubt it.’’
Pope Benedict XVI seems rarely to have mentioned sports in the nearly eight years of his papacy, although two months ago, His Holiness addressed a collection of Italian Olympic athletes and sounded remarkably connected to the Olympic spirit, imparting to them in a Dec. 17 audience that “humility is the secret of victory.’’
Which proves that Pope Benedict certainly doesn’t watch the NFL. Acts of “humility’’ and “victory’’ haven’t coexisted on an NFL gridiron for decades. For that matter, they’ve pretty much tumbled down the backside of Olympus, too.
“The athlete who lives his experience fully pays attention to God’s plan for his life,’’ he told the Olympians, all of whom participated in the 2012 London Games, “learns to listen to His voice throughout the long periods of training, to recognize Him in the face of his companions and even that of his adversaries.’’
I contacted Father Imbelli last week in hopes of getting the inside skinny on what sort of sporting life popes have lived through the centuries. A New Yorker and confessed Yankees fan, Imbelli by no means considers himself an expert on papal athletics, but he picked up a few threads on the subject while studying in Rome.
Pope Pius XI, recalled Imbelli, was an avid mountain climber.
“With a background as a librarian, both in Milan and then the Vatican, I believe,’’ said Imbelli. “He was a feisty, in-your-face kind of guy. I’m not sure that’s true of all mountain climbers, but . . . ’’
Born Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, Pius the feisty librarian/mountain climber served as pope from 1922-39 and wrote more than 30 encyclicals, some on such weighty subjects as Communism and Nazism.
Perhaps the pope best known for athletic endeavors was John Paul II, who preceded the outgoing Benedict. Karol Jozef Wojtyla embraced the outdoors throughout his life, to the point, recalled Imbelli, that Vatican lore has it that he would duck out of Rome for an afternoon in the Apennines, the 750-mile chain of mountains that is Italy’s geographic spine.
“He was relatively young  when he became pope,’’ said Imbelli. “From what I gather, he was known to steal out of the Vatican, leave there in disguise, so he could hike and climb in the Apennines. Not with ropes, necessarily. It was his place to sort of get away from it all, at least as the stories go.’’
Born in Poland in 1920, Wojtyla played soccer as a child, teams in his town routinely dividing into Catholic and Jewish squads. The future head of the Catholic church would switch sides and play for the Jewish team on days when it was short a player or two. He grew up to become an avid hiker, climber, skier, and kayaker.
Pope John Paul’s biography, “On the Road to Sainthood,’’ tells of the time Pope Pius XII nominated Father Wojtyla to be auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Krakow. As the pope’s written request arrived in Warsaw, Wojtyla was in Poland, leading students on a kayaking trip. Informed by a local parish priest that he was to return immediately to Warsaw to receive urgent Vatican news, the future pope hopped on a milk wagon for transport to nearby Olsztynek and then took a train south.
Once offered his new role upon arriving in Warsaw, the now-bishop made straight to the train station for a return trip. The kayaking trip had to be completed. The Archdiocesan Museum in Krakow put one of John Paul II’s folding kayaks on display in 2003.
A story that has been told around the Vatican for years, according to Imbelli, was that John Paul II was hiking his beloved Apennines one day and encountered a young boy on a trail. The sharp-eyed youth knew immediately that he was in the company of the Holy Father.
“So the kid goes back to his parents and tells them, ‘I saw the pope!’ ’’ said Imbelli. “The parents listen, and then they tell him to quit telling stories. But it was true. They all soon found out, he’d seen the pope.’’
Beyond Pius XI and John Paul II, said Imbelli, he hasn’t heard much more about papal athletics.
“Although, being in Rome, you’d figure a few of them must have tried bocce,’’ he said.
Pope Benedict has but a few hours left on the job. Be it in constant prayer or a late-in-life dalliance with the religion of sport, he says it’s time to relinquish his pastoral staff. He is the first pope to retire on the job since Gregory XII in 1415.
“So,’’ kidded Imbelli, thinking ahead to the process soon to begin to name a new pope, “you want to know what sports they’ll play at the conclave?”
No, I said, noting that I couldn’t imagine what sports the cardinals would play.
“Oh,’’ mused Imbelli, “that’s probably high-stakes poker.’’