Almost a year to the day since his historic resignation, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has denied that he came under pressure within the Vatican to quit.
In a rare public statement, the 86-year-old former pontiff insisted he had freely taken the decision to become the first pope since the Middle Ages to resign the seat of St Peter, in a move that shocked the Catholic Church and made headlines around the world.
There was intense speculation that his resignation was prompted by deep dismay over a scandal in which his butler stole confidential Vatican documents which were leaked to the press and revealed corruption, nepotism and mud-slinging at the heart of the Holy See.
"There isn't the slightest doubt about the validity of my resignation from the Petrine ministry," Benedict wrote in a letter to 'La Stampa', an Italian newspaper, in reply to questions by the paper's Vatican correspondent.
It was on February 28 last year that Benedict left the Vatican for the last time as pope and was flown in a white Italian air force helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, a papal summer residence outside Rome.
Benedict also addressed an argument put forward recently by a prominent Catholic writer that he had not in fact resigned of his own volition and that he therefore technically remained pope, meaning that the election of Pope Francis last March was invalid.
Antonio Socci, an Italian journalist and commentator on Catholic issues, suggested recently in 'Libero', a conservative Italian newspaper, that Benedict was persuaded to resign by a faction of cardinals who were opposed to him.
"The only condition for the validity is the full freedom of the decision. Speculation about its invalidity is simply absurd," Benedict wrote in his letter.
His unprecedented decision to resign – which he announced in Latin during an obscure Vatican gathering on February 11 – pitched the Holy See into unchartered waters.
It raised questions about how the Vatican would deal with a retired pope, where he would live, how he would be addressed and what he would wear, amid concerns that Benedict could become a sort of shadow pope and a lightning rod for dissatisfaction with his successor.
In his letter, Pope Benedict defended his decision to continue wearing the white cassock and white skull cap of the papacy, saying that it should not be interpreted as a sign that he wanted to still be regarded as the pope. "I continue to wear the white cassock and kept the name Benedict for purely practical reasons. At the moment of my resignation there were no other clothes available.
Benedict has rarely been seen in public since his resignation, but made an exception last Saturday when he turned up in St Peter's Basilica for a ceremony in which Pope Francis appointed 19 new cardinals.
The former pope joined cardinals clad in vivid scarlet cassocks in the front row of the basilica. He embraced Pope Francis at the start of the ceremony.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols said he did not think it was particularly unusual that the Pope Emeritus had attended the ceremony. "He's doing exactly what he said he would, which is devoting himself to praying for the church and living a life of prayerful seclusion," the archbishop said during a press conference.
Benedict lives in a former convent within the walls of the Vatican, spending his days praying, reading, caring for his pet cats, walking in a small garden and playing the piano. (©Daily Telegraph, London)