Less than one month ago, Facebook posts and Twitter tweets announced momentous news: “Annuntio vobis tristitiam magnam,” one said. “Sede Vacante,” read another. A million similar messages appeared across the internet and the new social media. The ancient See of St. Peter was vacant.
As a 30-something Roman Catholic, the resignation of the pope has been hard to accept. It feels strange speaking about an emeritus pope. If another pontiff had retired, things might have been easier to handle. But, this pope meant so much to me.
For almost a decade, I followed the life and teaching of Pope Benedict XVI. And, I have been reading the writings of Joseph Ratzinger for a much longer time. Beneath the cloud of a dictatorship of relativism, PapaRatzi’s theological brilliance and steadfast faith afforded me so much light and shelter.
Like other 20- and 30-something Catholics, I grew up in an age of human brokenness. Our generation came into a world that was post-Christian, post-modern, and secular. Traditional familial and communal structures had been dismantled long before we were able to decide upon their relevance for our lives. Mayberry had given way to Melrose Place. Instead, we were expected to ‘mature’ at a time when individuals were celebrated over and against communities and when subjective opinion was held in higher regard than the reasoned search for truth. Unlike previous generations, ours possessed no real point of contact with that older order of things. Indeed, we were adrift in a world unable to respond to our deepest desires and most authentic aspirations for human communion and spiritual sustenance.
As Western culture slipped further into these historic transformations, losing sight of its Christian heritage, divorce and abortion rates exploded. In fact, some sociologists refer to mine as an “aborted generation.” Our lives of inter-personal communion had been interrupted.
Then, Blessed Pope John Paul II called us into the embrace of ecclesial communion. As a philosopher-poet, he placed life’s most significant questions in front of us, inviting us to consider them from inside the Christian experience. Throughout his pontificate, he never tired of seeking us out. His last words were addressed to us: “I have looked for you. You have come to me. And, I thank you.”
But, if John Paul the Great formed us into a generation, Benedict educated and steeped us in the re-generative power of the Christian Gospel.
Through his service to the late pope and his almost uncountable books and articles, he shepherded us through a period of intense theological education. During his pontificate, the Second Vatican Council turned 50. With him, we entered into the inner storeroom of Christian wisdom. We found a place inside the Benedictine scriptorium of Christian heritage. From there, he led us toward the altar where he restored the Church’s ancient, but ever new, liturgical worship. That restored worship sheltered and anchored us in the midst of the turbulent storms of post-modern secularism. It made palpable and real the beautiful truth of God’s love for mankind in the Eucharist.
For that reason, Benedict will remain with us. And so, truth be told, he will never be gone. As I headed off to an appointment at the Vatican’s Sala Stamp this morning, I caught sight of an image of the retired pope. Under his image, words were written in red, announcing: “You Remain With Us For Ever. Grazie.” That sign captured sentiments I have been sensing since before the retirement became effective.
Yet, inside St. Peter’s Square, there is an imposing sense of emptiness and anticipation. The windows of the papal apartment are shuttered. No light spills out of them onto the piazza below. From an impromptu post office, pilgrims purchase ‘francobolli’ or stamps and minted coins, commemorating the papal resignation and the period of the interregnum or sede vacante. On the far side of St. Peter’s Square, just outside the territorial boundaries of the Vatican, reporters and television cameramen focus their attention on the central loggia above the great entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica. In due time, after his election, the new pope will present himself to the world from that point.
Although we witnessed similar images not even a decade ago, those images are tinged with a certain historical gravitas now.
The last time that a Roman Pontiff stepped down from the Chair of Peter, the new world had not been discovered, the Protestant Reformation had not divided Christians, and neither Christopher Columbus’ parents nor Martin Luther himself had been born. When St. Celestine V left office in 1294, the Church’s Common Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, hadn’t been declared a saint.
Now, in the midst of a culture in the shadow of materialism, consumerism, egoism, and radical individualism, we witnessed a simple disciple of Jesus take leave of the oldest absolute monarchical office in Europe. That singular action seized the attention of the world and created an unprecedented buzz of discussion across the new social media. For almost two weeks, more than five thousand journalists have been converging on Rome. And, countless bloggers, facebook-ers, and twitter-ers have been following the events with rapt attention.
Through the means of instant global communication, we watched images unfold that—just a few short weeks ago—seemed almost unpredictable. With the help of Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, and smartphone text messaging, we participated in a moment that seemed so difficult to process. For a time, technological devices were elevated, serving as the select platforms for Catholics to come together in a moment of ecclesial communion. Since the resignation, as the world has been anticipating the beginning of the papal conclave, new technological devices (most of them not even a half decade old) have become the transmitters of a centuries’ old drama.
As I work at a desk inside the Vatican’s Sala Stampa, Fr. Federico Lombardi concludes a press conference in the next room. He has finished addressing some two hundred journalists from around the globe. Countless others listened to him via live satellite feed from the Vatican’s Media Center at the Pope Paul VI Hall, located one floor below the room in which the cardinals have been meeting for their general consistories or congregations.
The buzz inside the conference hall, like that on the new social media, has been all about the conclave. Even before the pope’s resignation became effective, the media was demanding to know the date of the beginning of the appointment inside the Sistine Chapel. There was a frantic rush to access that information. But, now that we know that the conclave begins this week, some in the media are complaining that it isn’t beginning sooner. Reporters eager to announce the name of the new pope expect the cardinals to convene and make their decision at the same rapid-fire pace as instant communication. When I check Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail, I am bombarded with comments from editors, journalists, and colleagues back home in the states, objecting to the fact that the cardinals aren’t moving faster.
But, I find that I am pulling back from that fevered rush into the beginning of the next phase of the cardinals’ momentous task to choose the next pope. I just want a little more time to remember a pontificate that meant so much to me—that helped me to set out into the deep in search of an adult faith. And so, for just a little while, I disconnect from Facebook and Twitter.
Before undertaking this week’s reporting, which will see the beginning—and, perhaps, the conclusion—of the election process, I take a few moments to be a pilgrim in the heart of the Church. After pranzo, I make a little visit to the tomb of Blessed Pope John Paul II inside St. Peter’s Basilica. There, I remember more than two decades of dramatic episodes in the life of the Church. I recall the ministerial service and the magisterial teaching of the two men most responsible for forming and educating my generation. A little longer wait for the beginning of the next conclave seems altogether insignificant.
Kneeling at the tomb, I remember.
With John Paul the Great, it all began. As a team, JP2 and Ratzinger (later, Pope Benedict) proclaimed the advent of a new evangelization and the beginning of the springtime of faith in the Church. Outside the basilica, that springtime is arriving in the midst of a Roman winter. Despite all the journalists’ chatter about Vatileaks and scandals in the Church, 30-something curial officials dart through the piazza, en route to their posts, Swiss guardsmen—most under 30—stand vigil at the gates of the Vatican, 20-something religious women and men lead groups of pilgrims through the sacred sites of Rome, and freshman Catholic journalists like me transmit the afternoon’s news.
The “JP2 Generation” has arrived. Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we were still maturing. But now, we are all grown up. Young bishops, priests and deacons, men and women religious, married couples and families, and promoters of the culture of life in the professions, industries, and culture populate the Catholic landscape. We are prepared to tell our stories of faith and to form the next generation of Catholics.
As I leave the basilica and head back to work, the sun sets over the seven hills of Rome. Despite all the earlier commotion, the square seems still and quiet. The ancient See of Peter is vacant, but the Church continues her work of evangelization. I listen to the sound of water cascading from the great marble fountains on both sides of the colonnades. A gentle breeze rushes across the piazza, cooling laborers heading home from work. Alongside a stone fountain in the walls of the Vatican, an older woman stops for a brief moment for a drink of water. And, motorini dash around street corners capped with images of the Madonna and Child. It is a pleasant evening in Rome. But, there is still much work to be done.
This week, the cardinals will enter into conclave to elect the new pope. But, for now, I praise God for the time we have been given to remember what has been, to recount our stories, and to prepare our spirits to set out into the deep at the side of the next pope.
As I head back to work, traveling along small streets covered in cobbled stone, night begins to fall upon Rome. I look up and behold the stars shining in the vast distance and I recall a verse from Dante, recounting God’s love—“L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle”—the love that moves the sun and all the stars.
It is that love that sustains the Church in the midst of a tremendous and tremulous transition. And, although popes come and go, that love will never leave us because God is love—Deus caritas est.