Thursday, February 28, 2013

Some Reflections on the Sede Vacante

On April 15, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Alois Ratzinger, became the Two hundred and sixty fifth Pope.

In case you haven’t heard, he resigned the papacy a little over five hours ago. And have you seen the coverage? Not since the Funeral of Blessed Pope John Paul II have we seen such wall-to-wall coverage...and we haven’t even come to the Conclave yet! There’s a fascination with the Pope, not just among Catholics, but with all the people of the world!

Indeed, last year’s Forbes magazine ranked the most powerful people on earth. The pope was number 6, after Chinese President Hu Jintao, President Obama, King Abdullah, and Prime Minister Putin. He beat out Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Cameron, Chairman Bernanke, President Gandhi, and Bill Gates.

And it is true that the Pope is the chief shepherd of one-sixth of the world's population. But, the Vatican (don’t tell anyone) doesn’t have nuclear weapons and not a single drone, unless you count those little plastic airplanes the guy across from Porta Sant’Anna sells with the rubber bands and the propellers for beaks.

At the height of his powers, the dictator Joseph Stalin once sarcastically asked his advisors, ”how many legions does the Pope have?” Fifty years later, the Soviet Union is no more, and largely due to the efforts of a Polish Pope, and the Catholic Church is about to elect its 266th Pope.

What is it about the Pope that so fascinates an unbelieving world? If you will allow me an oversimplification, the Pope it seems to me is three things to a world whose heart aches:

He is Priest to a world which finds it hard to accept God’s mercy.

He is Prophet to a world which lies to itself in order to feel better. 

And he is Papa to a world in which fatherly affection is at a premium. 

Three stories.

Pope as Priest
Is there any image more priestly than an old priest sitting in a confessional, listening deeply to the sins of a penitent?  And is there anything the world needs more than an assurance that sins can be forgiven?

That’s why it was such a shock when the newly elected John Paul II insisted that he wanted to hear confessions on Good Friday.  He walked in with a simple white cassock and a purple stole, like any parish priest, and entered the confessional and heard confessions for over an hour....not just that year, but every one of the years in his quarter century as Pope.

But even that priestly act was not what really impressed me about Pope as Priest under Blessed Pope John Paul II.  It was the shooting.  In the midst of a General Audience the Pope was shot and almost died in the succeeding days.  However, over the course of the coming months he miraculously recovered. 

But beyond the shooting and beyond his recovery, what is seared in my memory is that picture of the Pope, sitting on a plastic chair in the jail cell of his attempted assassin.  He’s hunched down in the confessor’s pose, listening to Ali Agca, extending his hand over him in blessing and forgiving him for trying to kill him.

A world that cannot forgive itself, a world where nothing is wrong but nothing is forgiven aches for the mercy of God.  It aches for a Pope as Priest in the model of Christ.

Pope as Prophet
As the world aches for the truth.  In an age when everything is up for grabs, when nothing is always true, and where every blogger is free to make up his own notion of reality...we ache for absolute truth.  For the truth the comes from God...the truth which i unchangeable, not subject to shifting winds of the roaring crowd.

Pope Benedict XVI was a prophet of the truth, perhaps never more eloquently than in his words just before the start of the last Conclave eight years ago.  That was the day on which he proclaimed:

“...relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and “swept along by every wind of teaching”, looks like the only attitude [acceptable] to today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

Pope as Papa
And third, my favorite story...I was a seminarian, three conclaves ago...I had just arrived in Rome, fresh from my senior year at Holy Cross.  As luck would have it, Pope Paul VI held a private audience for the American seminarians in honor of the American Bicentennial.  The very old Pope practically fell into the Cathedral of the Sala Clementine and addressed the group in English which was, at times, hard to understand.

Then he looked at us with a deep kindness and began to speak in Italian.  It was an informal Italian which recalled his days in Rome and how strange it was to him to be in a different city with different people and different food far from home.  “Yet,” he continued, “I think of how far from home you are.  There must be times when you feel alone and afraid!  Know that when you feel alone and afraid, there is one person in this city who loves you and prays for you, and that person is il papa.”

The Pope is called the Holy Father because he is, and to a world so in need of paternal love, he reflects the love of our Heavenly Father in a wonderful way.

Priest of the Church
Prophet to the Church
And Papa of the Church

Who Do They Say We Are?

To read some news reports you think we were defined by clergy sexual abuse. And who can blame them, really?  When the horrendous crimes of some priests have cruelly wounded the hearts of little children with an exquisite pain that never completely goes away.  But in response the Church has done so much, but we have so much more to do.  

To read other reports you would think the church was the most archaic institution in the world, so far behind the times on gay marriage, optional celibacy, women priests, abortion and birth control. One prominent blog lamented that what the Cardinals really need to  do is to finally admit the premarital sex is really OK, and even at times to be recommended.  The blogger wrote:

“The threat of eternal damnation for an act so natural and so beautiful is destructive. Those who wish to wait for marriage to partake in sexual relations are to be commended. Those who wish to enjoy sexual relations with loved ones before marriage should not be condemned. This restriction may be the most glaring example of how far behind the times the church really is.

There is no shortage of such commentary in the blogs these days. But what do such commentators expect the church to do? To abandon the Scriptures and the very words of Christ? To abandon 2000 years of Christian tradition? To speak to the modern age the words it wants to hear rather than the truth?  

Who is the Church?

That is what they say about us.  But who is this Church that now seeks to elect a Pope for the Twenty-First Century?

She is, as we profess in the Creed and hear echoed in the words of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, a reality both visible and invisible.

Visibly, she is the largest manifestation of the Christian religion on earth.  One out of six people on the globe is Catholic.  1.1 billion members worldwide, while all Protestant denominations add up to 593 million.  As you might expect, there are areas of growth and areas of diminishment.  Most Catholics today live south of the Equator.  Africa, by way of example, the Church has tripled its membership in the past thirty years, from 55 to 150 million.

In the United States the number of self identified Catholics has, likewise, grown dramatically.  In 1965 there were 48.5 million.  Today there are 78.2 million, a thirty eight percent growth in just under fifty years.  

At the same time, the number of U.S. Priests has declined by almost a quarter in those same fifty years.  The reduction in the number of priests and the increase in the number of U.S. Catholics has resulted in priest less parishes and a radical reexamination of the ways in which ministry is done on the local scene.  Worldwide, the number of priests has actually increased by two percent in the past twenty five years.  

But the deepest reality of the Church is not visible, but invisible. 

And here, the most fundamental reality of the Church, which we hear echoed in Lumen Gentium tonight, is that to be a member of the Church I must be Baptized and in Baptism I become one with Christ.

And how do we live out that Baptism?.  And no place it that more clearly lived out than in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of the entire life of the Church.  Indeed, as Blessed Pope John  Paul II reminded us, it is the Church which makes the Eucharist, but it is also the Eucharist which makes the Church.

Better still, allow me to quote from His Holiness, Benedict XVI, Pope-emeritus of the Church, in his words to the Cardinals gathered in Rome just about twelve hours ago.  In the last formal address of his Pontificate, the Holy Father spoke of the Church within the context of the last few hours of his time in the See of Peter:

I would like to leave you with a simple thought that is close to my heart, a thought on the Church, Her mystery, which is for all of us, we can say, the reason and the passion of our lives. I am helped by an expression of Romano Guardini’s, written in the year in which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council approved the Constitution Lumen Gentium, his last with a personal dedication to me, so the words of this book are particularly dear to me.

Guardini says: "The Church is not an institution devised and built at table, but a living reality. She lives along the course of time by transforming Herself, like any living being, yet Her nature remains the same. At Her heart is Christ."

This was our experience yesterday, I think, in the square. We could see that the Church is a living body, animated by the Holy Spirit, and truly lives by the power of God, She is in the world but not of the world. She is of God, of Christ, of the Spirit, as we saw yesterday. This is why another eloquent expression of Guardini’s is also true: "The Church is awakening in souls." 

The Church lives, grows and awakens in those souls which like the Virgin Mary accept and conceive the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. They offer to God their flesh and in their own poverty and humility become capable of giving birth to Christ in the world today. Through the Church the mystery of the Incarnation remains present forever. Christ continues to walk through all times in all places. Let us remain united, dear brothers, to this mystery, in prayer, especially in daily Eucharist, and thus serve the Church and all humanity. This is our joy that no one can take from us.

So let us pray for His Holiness, Benedict XVI, that God will grant him a good, long and restful retirement.  

But let us also pray to the Lord for our new chief shepherd, whoever he may be.

O God, eternal shepherd,
who govern your flock with unfailing care,
grant in your boundless fatherly love
a pastor for your Church
who will please you by his holiness
and to us show watchful care.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever.

From a talk given at Saint Mary’s Church, Charlestown, Massachusetts.   28 April 2013