April 28, 2005
At the heart of Catholic Rome stand the larger than life statues of St. Peter with the keys and St. Paul with the sword. A permanent witness in front of St. Peter’s Basilica to the preaching of these two great apostles in Rome of the first century. Today the more than 1.1 billion Catholics look to Rome to find continuity in the apostolic tradition. But Rome has an attraction for people of all faiths. Non-Catholic look to Rome to hear what the world’s largest religion teaches about the issues facing modern society. For this past month, with undiluted interest, the world has kept its attention focused on the Vatican as the Church moved from one papacy to another.
No one could doubt the interest the modern papacy has sparked on every continent. No one can gainsay the immense respect the popes of this century have earned. Fifteen reigning monarchs, 75 heads of government or state - including President George W. Bush and Iranian President Mohammed Khatami and leaders of other religions attended the April 9
th funeral of John Paul II. And at the inauguration of our new pope’s ministry, there were 141 delegations representing heads of State and government in attendance. In addition, there were 70 people representing the Orthodox Churches and other Christian communities.
With eager eyes, the world had watched the white smoke billow from the Sistine Chapel just ten minutes before the evening Angelus on April 19
th. With swift feet, the crowds answered the peals of the bells. They ran to St. Peter’s. The anticipation ended. The announcement made.
Habemus Papam. We have a Pope. With those simple words heard around the world, the living link was made to the event recorded in the gospel that was proclaimed in Latin and Greek at the Mass of Inauguration.
In this gospel event (Jn 21), He who calls himself the Good Shepherd makes Shepherd of His Church a man He calls Peter. For the Semites, the role of shepherd means nothing less than sharing in God’s authority over his people. “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep”---guide, guard, govern. It is divine authority in its fullness. It is the highest service in the Church.
The shoes of the fisherman are on German feet. The first time in 1,000 years! The Church continues her march through the centuries. A surprise. “He who enters the conclave as Pope, comes out as cardinal.” Cardinal Ratzinger went in as Pope. He came out as Pope. The exception proves the rule. Immediately the crowds rejoiced. But the critics raised their eyebrows. This is not the man to bring about the changes they want. Certainly, he will stand strong where the Church must stand strong—on the faith of the Church, on the value of human life and on the need for truth and justice as the basis of all civilization.
He chose a new name. Benedict XVI. The last Pope Benedict was a moderate with a short reign. Our new Pope is a realist. He knows he must be a source of unity and strength for the Church. Critics immediately ratcheted up their attacks. The morning papers after the election quoted comments from people on the street, e.g. an ice cream vendor, a grocery man, a store manager. They printed predictions of polarization. But this Holy Father will preach to unify. He knows the office that has been handed to him. As he himself said in his April 18
th homily, there is need for “a clear faith according to the Credo of the Church.”
“We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires,” he said Monday in the pre-conclave Mass. The Church, he insisted, must defend itself and the world against threats such as “radical individualism” and “vague religious mysticism.”
Critics are parsing his words. His homily at the beginning of the conclave. His many profound theological writings from the last forty years. He is not an unknown as some of his predecessors were at the moment of their election. At 35, he was a consulter to the archbishop of Cologne during the Second Vatican Council. In 1968, he published a collection of university lectures on the profession of the apostolic faith in the book "Introduction to Christianity." In 1973, he published "Dogma and Revelation," an anthology of writings dedicated to the pastoral ministry.
Commentators on the TV and radio, newspaper articles could not wait to register their vote of dismay. The divine mission of the Church. Christ as Lord of all creation. Abortion. Women’s ordination. Gay marriages. Euthanasia. The new Pope will not change the Church’s teaching on these issues. They got that right. But they simply do not understand. He cannot change on matters of faith and morals. Some Catholics do not accept what the Church teaches. But the Church still teaches what the Lord Himself has entrusted to her in the
depositum fidei. One reporter listed a litany of laments groaned by nationalists in different countries. They were hoping the new Pope would come from them. Again they got it wrong. He does come from them. He comes from all of us. That’s what makes us Catholic. As St. Paul says, “In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28).
Benedict XVI is the oldest man chosen for the papacy since Clement XII in 1730. But age is neither an obstacle to the vigor of faith nor a hindrance for growth and development. Blessed John XXIII was 77 when elected. Who could have predicted how the Holy Spirit was going to use him? An old Pope, a new era for the Church.
To more than a half million people in St. Peter’s square and to the millions watching around the world, the Holy Father said in his homily this past Sunday, “During those sad days of the Pope's illness and death, it became wonderfully evident to us that the Church is alive. And the Church is young. She holds within herself the future of the world and therefore shows each of us the way towards the future. The Church is alive and we are seeing it: we are experiencing the joy that the Risen Lord promised His followers. The Church is alive - she is alive because Christ is alive, because He is truly risen.”
The conclave was quick. The message clear. This is the man fitted for the needs of the Church today. Critics talk of division. The cardinals’ swift choice speaks of unity, a unity based on a clear understanding of the faith of the Church.
Through the intercession of Mary, the Mother of the Church, may the Lord strengthen and sustain our Holy Father, Benedict XVI.