February 22 is the Roman Catholic Church’s Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, marking the Biblical passage – Matthew 16:18 – in which Jesus renames the apostle Simon, saying, “And I tell you, you are Peter” – which means “rock” – “and upon this rock, I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”
For Catholics, that was the beginning of what is called the “Petrine ministry,” in which the Bishop of Rome – Peter being the first of these – is also the Pope, the moral, spiritual and administrative head of the Church. It also is interpreted as a guarantee from Christ that, no matter human failings and the world’s evils, His Church will survive.
In one week, though, the Chair will be vacant, as Pope Benedict XVI steps down – the first pope in almost 700 years to do so – and the College of Cardinals will be locked away in conclave (a Latin word meaning “with a key”) in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome to vote on which of their number will be the new pope.
Just about everyone vaguely connected to media has weighed in on Benedict’s departure and who will replace him, but often lost in the chatter of pundits and self-appointed pope-watchers is how this has affected ordinary Catholics – especially priests.
Father M, as we’ll call him, is a 34-year-old priest in a parish in a major East Coast city. He was ordained in 2005, the same year as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope, so, as he says in an email, “Benedict and I have been in this together.”
Over the course of this email conversation, Father M shares his feelings on this momentous occasion in the Church to which he has dedicated his life.
Asked how hearing the news affected him, Father M writes, “Heartbreaking. I was on my way out the door for Mass when I noticed a text message. I glanced at it – a priest friend lamented the fact that the Pope just resigned. I asked one of the nuns – also on her way over to church – if she had caught the news that morning, and she said, yes, the Pope was resigning.
“I was pretty shaken up all through Mass, and it hit me like a ton of bricks when I mentioned his name in the Eucharistic Prayer. One of the congregants thought I was getting sick. It wasn’t pretty.
“I’m personally upset – I love Pope Benedict and have loved him since I was a young seminarian, and he seemed to be the only higher-up that seemed to be speaking sense about the state of the Church and what we needed to do to get back into shape. I was devastated when John Paul II died, and was struck with the notion that – what if I didn’t like the new Pope? Simple solution: pray that God gives us Ratzinger! And He did! It was the happiest day of my life.
“So, I’m taking this personally. But I trust him. It’s obvious that he hasn’t felt well in a while, and I know he didn’t take this step lightly. In retrospect, he’s been telling us he’d do it – if the need arose – from the very beginning.
“Now that he’s done it… I don’t know. I’m still upset and probably will be for a long while. But there is something neat about living through history like this – and knowing MY Pope will be the one who sets a precedent.
“There’s a lot of wisdom doing what he did at the outset of Lent, too. Typical Benedict, really. The whole Church will be going through Lent, together. We’ll be praying for the Cardinals, for the Church, for each other.
“And then, by Easter – we’ll have a new Pope.”
Pope Benedict XVI’s last day will be Friday, Feb. 28, and Father M has plans, writing, “I’d love to be in Rome on the 28th, but getting away during Lent is tough. I did arrange it so that I can visit some (seminary) classmates that day. (On the day of Benedict’s election), we had just come back from lunch together when one of us, Joe, checked the TV and saw the White Smoke. We were the first ones down in the TV room. Slowly everybody trickled in, until the room was full.
“We were all right there, front and center, when those blessed words were said, ‘Habemus Papam!’ [Latin for ‘We have a Pope!’] So, it’s kind of fitting that we’ll be together for the end of the papacy. One guy’s actually flying in. The other one is a pastor in Brooklyn, so we’ll be going up to his place for the day. It will be bittersweet.”
As for his hopes for the new pontiff, Father M thinks having an announcement on Easter Sunday would be great, writing, “It would be beautiful. The world would be watching. What a beautiful way to witness to the Risen Christ. But I’d put my money on St Joseph’s Day (March 19).
“But I’ve already picked my ideal Pope. I’ll leave this one the Paraclete (a k a the Holy Spirit). I just pray I have the humility to accept him, whoever he is, as God’s choice and try to love him as much as I’ve loved JP2 and B16.
“But that’ll be tough.”
It’s hard to predict how the mainstream media will react to the new Pope, but Father M writes, “They’ll be shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you, when the new Pope turns out to be Catholic.
“But it will be an eventful Lent!
“And a Glorious Easter.”