Published July 7, 2005
In the second of three articles on the death of Pope John Paul the Great and the election of his successor, Father Paul A. Burke offers reflections on the election of Pope Benedict XVI.
The death of a Pope is accompanied by an array of rituals and symbols steeped in tradition. The passing of Pope John Paul the Great was announced to the world as crowds were praying the rosary in St. Peter’s Square. When the Holy Father was pronounced dead, his baptismal name was called three times. Confirmation of his death was followed by the closing of the shutters of the papal apartments and then the sealing of the private rooms. The Holy Father’s staff vacated the Apostolic Palace, and the “Fisherman’s Ring” was defaced. The bells of St. Peter’s and those of other churches began to toll. Prayers were said, tears were shed, memories were shared and condolences were expressed.
The common thread that ran through all of the media coverage at that time was that the world had lost one of the greatest champions of the sanctity of human life. And the Catholic Church had lost its shepherd. United in grief we mourned the loss of our beloved Pope. This initial mourning was followed by extraordinary events. Well over four million people traveled to Rome to pay their respects to this spiritual giant. Long lines of people waited for hours to catch a glimpse of the Pope, to offer a prayer and to say farewell. It was as if time stopped as the world united to say thanks to God for the gift of our Holy Father’s life.
Who can ever forget the funeral Mass? As the casket of Pope John Paul the Great was brought in procession to St. Peter’s Square for the funeral Mass, the crowds broke silence by applause. Truly this was a remarkable gesture. As the Holy Father had made so many apostolic journeys as the Bishop of Rome, millions of people from around the world gathered in his city as he made his final journey home to God. Kings and queens, presidents and religious leaders from every corner of the world came to pay homage to this humble servant: the Servant of the Servants of God.
And who could ever forget the beautiful words of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as he said: “We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s House, that he sees and blesses us. Yes, bless us, Holy Father.”
Once the Holy Father had been laid to rest in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica, the next moment of history was about to unravel: the conclave that would elect the same Cardinal Ratzinger as the new Pope, taking the name Benedict XVI.
One of the features of the modern age is the rapid development of the mass media. The events taking place at the Vatican were witnessed by people around the world on television and radio, on the Internet and in the print media. People watching found a new fascination with the gestures and symbols as the cardinals of the Catholic Church prepared for the conclave. Many of the cardinals were interviewed. The urgent concerns of the world and the Church were discussed, and the media speculated who the next Pope would be.
But only God would know who: because the papacy is not a democracy: it is a call to follow the Lord as the Good Shepherd by walking in the “shoes of the fisherman.”
For the first time, we were privileged, through the mass media, to participate in the sacred liturgies of those holy days in the life of the Church. We listened intently to the words of Cardinal Ratzinger as Dean of the College of Cardinals in his homily prior to the election of the Supreme Pontiff. He reminded the cardinals of their most sacred task and duty of electing the Successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ. He noted especially that the world in which we are living is a changed one:
How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking? The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up and what St. Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4:14) comes true. Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine,” seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.
We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this true friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.
Cardinal Ratzinger, with great accuracy and profundity, interpreted the “signs of the times” where freedom oftentimes has been separated from the Truth who is Jesus Christ. The Second Vatican Council emphasized that “Jesus Christ reveals man to himself.” To separate the human person from Jesus Christ is to be led into error. Only in Christ can people truly discover who they are and what they are being called to.
These words of Cardinal Ratzinger spoke volumes and resonated in the minds and hearts of the ones who were called to choose his successor as they processed into the Sistine Chapel. The whole multitude of saints was invoked and the blessing of God was imparted as they attended to their most lofty task. “Veni Creator Spiritus (Come Holy Spirit)” was chanted, an oath of secrecy was sworn and the doors of the Sistine Chapel were closed.
We got a rare glimpse of the solemnity of the occasion through the lens of a camera, but what was to take place in that sacred place would remain between the cardinals and almighty God. Black smoke signaled that a vote had been cast, but no one was elected. Then on April 19, what appeared to be white smoke was seen rising from the Sistine Chapel. How could we be sure that a Pope had been elected? The smoke would be followed by the giant bells of St. Peter’s tolling triumphantly to signal the election.
As the bells of St. Peter’s and the churches of Rome sounded, the atmosphere in St. Peter’s Square was almost like that of a carnival. Anticipation and excitement ruled the day. People stopped what they were doing so that they would get a glimpse of the new Pope and receive his blessing. Who could it be?
Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s. Greeting the faithful in several languages, he announced to the world “Habemus Papam (We have a Pope).” And his name was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.
As soon as the crowds heard the baptismal name, they knew that it was Cardinal Ratzinger: the man who has courageously defended the purity of the Catholic faith for over two decades, the man who preached so eloquently at the funeral Mass of Pope John Paul the Great and the man who instructed the cardinals in their most sacred duty of electing a new Pope. Thanks be to God.
And then the first glimpse of the new pontiff, no longer in the scarlet robes of a cardinal but in the pure white of a new pope, no longer Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger but Pope Benedict XVI. We remember the joy that we felt.
His first words to the faithful were marked by simplicity and humility: “After the great Pope, John Paul II, the Lord Cardinals have elected me, a simple, humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard. I am consoled by the fact that the Lord is able to work and act with insufficient instruments, and above all, I rely on your prayers.” And then he imparted his first papal blessing to the city of Rome and the world “urbi et orbi.”
In his address to the cardinals who elected him, he said: “I consider this a grace obtained for me by my venerated predecessor, John Paul II. It seems I can feel his strong hand squeezing mine: I seem to see his smiling eyes and listen to his words, addressed to me especially at this moment: ‘Do not be afraid.’”
It is easy to imagine the inexpressible joy of Pope John Paul the Great as his beloved friend was elected to succeed him. “Bless us Holy Father.”
Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that he had inherited a Church that is “more courageous, freer, younger… (that) looks with serenity to the past and is not afraid of the future.”
Once the election had been completed, world and religious leaders along with hundreds and thousands of faithful descended upon the Eternal City for the solemn Mass of Inauguration. And once again, we were privileged to witness sacred rituals and traditions. The woolen pallium symbolizing the yoke of Christ was placed on his shoulders. Not only was he to shepherd the Lord’s flock, but he was to seek the lost sheep and restore them to the Lord. The Fisherman’s Ring was placed on his finger as he recalled the words of Jesus to Peter on the Sea of Galilee: “Cast out your nets for a catch.” Even though Peter and his companions had caught nothing before now, he responded with words of faith: “Master, at your word I will let down the nets.” The same man who had denied even knowing Jesus was given the great mission to be a fisher of men. “The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.”
As Pope Benedict XVI began his mission, he reached out to all religions and people of good will and prayed that his ministry might be blessed as a service to unity. “Habemus Papam…we have a Pope.” He has been chosen by God to lead the Church in the midst of the world. He has received the grace of God to be the “Vicar of Christ.” He has been chosen to walk in the “shoes of the fisherman.” He has been anointed as the “Servant of the Servants of God.” To the Holy Father, we owe him our obedience and fidelity, our love and our prayers. His is a noble task and an awesome responsibility. It is a time to pray that he will continue to experience the inspiration and guidance of our beloved Pope John Paul the Great. It is a time to come to an “adult faith” that is firmly rooted in friendship with Jesus Christ. It is a time to foster the unity of all believers. It is a time to experience the full fruits of the “new evangelization.” God has blessed our times and will continue to do.
Jesus said to Peter: “He who hears you hears me, and the one who hears me, hears not me but the One who sent me.” United with Pope Benedict XVI, let us invoke the intercession of the saints who have gone before so that his service might always be truly blessed.