“Where were you when….?” From time to time, that question is asked, more often than not, in reference to major consequential moments in life. For folks of a certain age, “Where were you when you heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor?” or “Where were you when you heard that Kennedy was shot?” come to mind. “Where were you during 9/11?” is remembered by far more folks today.
As a Catholic priest, I am sometimes asked, “Where were you when you heard that Pope Benedict XVI was resigning the Papacy?” Well, frankly, I was fast asleep when I heard the familiar ‘ping’ on my iPhone, indicating that a text message was sent at 3:30 AM or so. For a few moments, I decided to ignore it and check it when I would wake up in a couple of hours. However, my curiosity got the better of me and I finally reached for the phone and there it was. The text was from Msgr. Mike Heher, a priest of our Diocese, who was in England at the time, giving a retreat. It simply said, “The Pope has resigned!” I could not believe what I was reading and, knowing Msgr. Heher as I do, I figured it was a joke. But then, why would he be joking about this? So, as we all do at moments when potentially historic news impinges on our lives, I turned on CNN, and there it was. At the conclusion of a meeting with some Cardinals, the Holy Father announced that he was resigning the Papacy because the ministry required the vigor that was waning in his life.
Scholar and Theologian that he is, the announcement was made in Latin! As I watched the reaction of the Cardinals and attendants at the meeting, one could tell whose Latin was ‘up to snuff’ and whose wasn’t! Some leaned to their neighbor trying to confirm what they thought they understood the Holy Father was saying. Others knew full well the historic and monumental import of this moment.
That simple yet historically astounding and consequential announcement would usher in events that, of themselves, would be astounding and historically consequential: the first Papal Conclave in centuries when a pope had not died and the election of the first pope from the ‘new world.’
As we near the five-year anniversary of the announcement by Benedict now Pope-emeritus, of his resignation this February 11th, the recent article from the National Catholic Reporter, is touching as Benedict acknowledges that he senses that his earthly pilgrimage may be nearing its finality.
I have always firmly believed that God sends us the right Pope at the right time to shepherd his Church. Following the lengthy Papacy of St. John Paul II, whose extraordinary extroversion served the Church in ushering in a ‘new evangelization,’ the election of the theologian-scholar introvert, Benedict, may not have received the high-profile coverage of his illustrious and vaunted predecessor. Yet, in his own quiet and saintly way, Benedict has left his indelible mark on a Church that is still integrating the herculean vision of the great Second Vatican Council. Paradoxically, however, his greatest gift to the Church might very well be, his humble yet courageous decision to resign for the good of the Church, thus setting a reasonable precedent for his successors.
There will always be a special place in my heart for Pope-emeritus Benedict. Following the death and funeral of St. John Paul II, through a variety of providential circumstances, I was able to fly to Rome and witness the legendary ‘white smoke’ from the Sistine Chapel, heralding his election. I was among the thousands who heard his name announced by the Cardinal Proto-Deacon, Jorge Medina, from the Loggia of St. Peter’s, “Annutio vobis, gaudium magnum, habemus Papa!” And, several days later, I witnessed the splendid Liturgy in St. Peter’s Square, inaugurating his Pontificate. These were once in a life time moments for which I will always be truly grateful.