- Posted March 3, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Catholics: Your views on new pope
Epilogue to a Pontificate
"I wish still with my heart, my love, my prayer, my reflection, with all my inner strength, to work for the common good and the good of the Church and of humanity." (from Benedict XVI's final message as pope at Castel Gandolfo)
The sede vacante: the Catholic Church has known this scenario many times in its history. But we thrive in a different age, in a unique situation. The sede vacante of recent centuries did not have any pope emeritus. As I write this, twenty-four hours have just elapsed since the end of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. This situation of limbo will end in a moment still unknown to us, with the classic “Habemus papam!” proclaimed from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica minutes after the white smoke would have appeared, accompanied by the pealing of church bells. Now for the meantime an umbrella replaces the tiara in the papal coat of arms and the chores proper for the period of the vacant see are done: until the new pope is elected, all the daily governance rests on the shoulders of the camerlengo.
And the rest of the world waits. There are not so many days in one’s life as a Catholic when the Church is without a pope and thus the days of the sede vacante are always seen as unusual. Wherever Catholics are, they look forward to that time when the new pope appears from the balcony, a cardinal a few moments back, but at that moment already garbed in papal garments.
The sede vacante is therefore a time to look forward. But it works also the other way. At this moment, the almost eight years of Benedict XVI’s pontificate is put into the limelight. For critics, this may not be a daunting task for it is a mere fraction of his predecessor’s reign. Add to the fact that the evaluation of Benedict XVI’s papacy began almost three weeks before the start of the sede vacante, the morning he announced that he was stepping down.
Like other Catholics, I find myself without a leader these days and while I await the habemus papam moment, I look back, limiting myself to the final eighteen days of Benedict XVI’s pontificate.
I was present in some of Benedict XVI’s final moments as Pope. I was there at his last general audience. Much can be said about it—that it was the audience of Benedict XVI, if I am not mistaken, where people explicitly went with the aim of seeing him and listening to his words, the only audience perhaps where everyone, even the pope himself, knew that this would be the last. And for this there was a throng that came. Roads were closed and buses were rerouted. In previous occasions, crowds of this magnitude came to witness canonizations or beatifications. This time, they came for the pope.
Now I step back and dwell on his last Angelus. A huge crowd filled Saint Peter’s Square on February 24. Everyone eagerly anticipated the Pope’s appearance from his window. I have been in many of the previous Sunday Angelus gatherings but the number of people present in this particular day was significantly bigger than usual. There was already some cheering when the window opened and the runner with the papal emblem was put in view of everyone. The lectern with the copy of the speech was visible even from far away. Then after a few more minutes, the Pope came out with arms outstretched and he was greeted with a warm applause. Notable were his words that made reference to the events of the Transfiguration, the Scripture reading of the day, relating it to his stepping down from the papal ministry: "The Lord is calling me to “scale the mountain,” to dedicate myself still more to prayer and to meditation… But this does not mean abandoning the Church – on the contrary, if God asks this of me, it is to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have tried to do so hitherto, but in a way that is more adapted to my age and my strength.”
These words lead us further back to the day he announced his renunciation of the papacy (February 11), to his last public appearances: a general audience and his last mass as Pope (February 13), the meeting with the Roman clergy (February 14), twice leading of the Angelus in the succeeding Sundays, and the last public audience on the eve of his last day as Pope.
In these gatherings, there were constants: the presence of a great number of people, an applause that seemed warmer than usual, words of gratitude from the Pontiff to the people for their love and prayer, and his reference to his stepping down from the papacy.
Last night, the much-revered Cardinal Joseph Zen came to our religious community (Salesians of Don Bosco) and shared with us his esteem of Benedict XVI. He had just come from his meeting with him the day before, in the Pope’s final audience with the cardinals. He was also in the town square to watch the Pope’s final appearance at the balcony of the papal house in Castel Gandolfo.
The Chinese cardinal summed up his estimate of the man whom he knew even as Cardinal Ratzinger, as one whom he has known for a good number of years. That he was a man who was humble and unassuming, a man who was really sweet—"dolcissimo" was his word he used. The Pope Emeritus was a man who was judged unfairly by others who have not even met him.
At Benedict XVI’s last few days, those words unkind and unpolished that have been hurled against him may remain so, published or not, but it was important for people like me who have a high regard for him to be assured that he saw that he was not alone in the rough sailing that the Church experiences.
The journey of Benedict XVI continues, not anymore as pope, but as "a pilgrim who begins the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth." It is a pilgrimage of love, prayer and reflection. This is a fitting epilogue to his pontificate, a serene denouement to the rough seas behind.
(Pictures: 1) To be missed: Benedict XVI's coat of arms will no longer adorn the church facades; 2) Seems just like yesterday: a poster of Pope Benedict's election in 2005 still looks new; 3) an endearing message from the capital: the city of Rome tells Benedict, "You will always remain with us. Thank you."