VATICAN CITY—Following a guided tour of the excavated ruins beneath St. Peter’s Basilica on Tuesday, several stunned members of a Vatican sightseeing group told reporters they had glimpsed a gaunt and haggard Joseph Ratzinger as he scuttled past them in the dark corridors of the subterranean burial site.
As they approached the deepest recesses of the Vatican Necropolis, the tourists said they were startled by a shadowy form that emerged briefly from a hidden alcove, let out a screech, and shielded its eyes from the light before scrambling out of sight. Church sources later stated that the sickly, rail-thin figure was likely the former Pope Benedict XVI, who has been periodically spotted skulking around the underground tombs over the past two years.
“Earlier in the tour, I thought I’d heard a faint murmuring noise and something skittering about, but I figured it was just my imagination,” said tour member Reuben Chapman, adding that the group’s guide had assured them it was “nothing” but appeared nervous nonetheless. “As we reached the tomb of St. Peter, though, I saw these two beady eyes peering out of the darkness from beneath a dirty, tattered mitre. Then whatever it was bared its teeth at us and hissed.”
“It was horrible—I’ll never forget how weak and terrified that thing looked, all hunched-over in the shadows,” Chapman continued. “Not to mention its absolutely foul smell.”
Members of the tour group described Ratzinger as having a sunken chest, hairless body, and thin, almost translucent skin revealing a vast patchwork of veins underneath. After His Holiness fled, the tourists reportedly came across a nest made from filthy scraps of old papal vestments and Apostolic Palace tapestries in the corner of a mausoleum, which they said had been heavily soiled. Strewn about nearby were the remnants of a red leather shoe; a small pile of shiny objects, including crosses, several past pontiffs’ Piscatory Rings, gum wrappers, and various keys; as well as a number of heavily gnawed-on bones from a smashed reliquary box.
When reached for comment, Vatican officials confirmed that sightings of a feral Ratzinger lurking in hidden corners of the holy city date back to March 2013, shortly after the inauguration of Pope Francis. Around that time, according to reports, the Swiss Guard pursued the one-time Vicar of Christ after he was caught trying to steal a crucifix-topped staff and other items of papal regalia belonging to his successor, though they were said to have quickly lost his trail when the pale, shriveled figure retreated down a narrow drainpipe.
The 88-year-old reformist theologian is believed to have kept mainly to the Necropolis since that time, though his contorted frame is said to be periodically spotted in the early morning hours hiding in the shadows of the colonnades in St. Peter’s Square, where he reportedly hunts for the rats and pigeons upon which he subsists.
“Last month, Cardinal [Gerhard Ludwig] Müller and Cardinal [Robert] Sarah found the pope emeritus crouching on the baptismal font in the Sistine Chapel lapping up holy water, and they had to chase him off with a broom,” said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, who noted that the filth-caked Ratzinger had appeared crazed with thirst, raising serious concerns for his health among the curia. “We want to help the poor guy, we really do, but every time anyone gets close to him he just starts clawing at them with his overgrown fingernails and then scurries down into the crypts.”
“We’ve made efforts to bring him in, but he’s always one step ahead of us,” Lombardi added. “He knows those tunnels better than anyone.”
Congregants visiting the basilica have provided additional accounts of the emaciated former pontiff. A woman who was lighting a candle for a deceased relative said she saw a shivering Ratzinger attempting to warm himself by huddling close to votives in the Chapel of St. Helen last February. In addition, several altar boys have reportedly seen him in the sacristy devouring communion wafers by the boxful. And just this past Christmas, a group of nuns found him clinging beneath a pew during midnight Mass, after which he is said to have darted out the bronze doors and quickly scaled a travertine column to the basilica roof.
Moreover, numerous sources said the secretive figure has proved a costly nuisance to the Holy See, noting that nearly every painting and photograph of Francis that had been hung around the Vatican had been found at some point or another with the eyes scratched out.
“If we can’t catch him soon and relocate him to a suitable home, we may be forced to resort to less humane measures,” Lombardi told reporters. “We’re still going to keep setting trays of sweets and highly conservative doctrinal bulletins beside the crypt entrance in hopes of luring him out of there, but we haven’t ruled out the possibility of just hiring an exterminator and fumigating the whole place.”