This column is written with great respect and deference to the Venerable College of Cardinals, entrusted during the unprecedented, sede vacanti, by a Pope with the knowledge, experience, and wisdom to know when it was time to retire. While, I do not claim status as a “Vatican Watcher,” the pontificate of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is a pivotal period in the life of the Catholic Church as well as a historical snapshot into the state of ecclesial and secular affairs. As Cardinal Ratzinger, the notorious task of policing the Catholic Church’s moral and doctrinal abnormalities marked his tenure. He governed the Church in the background, and was indeed the most logical candidate presented by the Holy Spirit to the College of Cardinals as the leading candidate. John-Paul II, a global idol spread the Gospel, kissed the ground of countries he visited and tried to reconcile a global Church divided by a myriad of internal and external issues which included the demise of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Eastern Communist bloc, the resurgence of nationalism in Europe, with the caveats of the strengthening of Islamic influence, insurrection within and outside of the Catholic Church and a universal gravitation towards the lures of secular humanism and rampant materialism. As Pope, John-Paul managed to administer an internal Curia, still loyal to the Old Italian manner of governing the Church and the constant intrigue associated with discredited members of the hierarchy through either high crimes or misdemeanors or outright felonious activities such as the Vatican Bank scandal and untold other sub signum events that will become known to historians of the future.
With remarkable courage, John-Paul taught us how to live a qualitative and productive life as our Pope with a dehabilitating disease, ultimately riddling his body with physical incapacity and medical maladies, that taught us an additional lessons; namely the love of life, the dignity and value of each and every human person and how death regardless of ecclesiastical title brings us all home to the Lord. John-Paul’s papacy was long. It was productive and it was exciting. As Catholics, the uniqueness of a non-Italian Pontiff in centuries provided the theological and secular bridge that perhaps united the world of medieval Europe, with the turmoil and triumph of the modern age, along with all of the growing pains associated with the Church’s journey from Trent to Vatican II and the dawning of a new century. In charity, and with great respect John-Paul suffered for us, the Church and with his own physical deterioration, however his exemplary example as a model for physical suffering inspired and motivated the world to at the least greatly respect the octogenarian Pope’s dignity, academic acumen, and determination to complete the task to which he was elected.
In contrast, on his election as John-Paul’s successor, Joseph Ratzinger as the newly installed Benedict XVI told the world that his papacy would not be one of a long duration. This brief declaration by the new Holy Father was considered briefly, and most of the world felt Benedict would exit the papal throne in the same manner his predecessors did, through physical death. However, in true Germanic fashion, Pope Benedict freely abdicated his papacy through retirement and stunned not only the College of Cardinals, but also indeed the entire global society. The last papal resignation occurred almost six centuries ago, and the outcome was not exactly a transition of dignity or charity. Benedict XVI’s resignation (which preferably should be called a retirement) is illustrative of the great changes the Catholic Church vehemently needs to coexist with the postmodern world with an evolving culture of transforming proportions.
The upcoming conclave, which in itself is a misnomer (Cardinals are no longer under lock and key during their deliberations). The sede vacante is still warm; its last occupant moving to another papal residence and Benedict peacefully and deliberately renounced his office as Bishop of Rome. He departed the Vatican, by a helicopter provided by the Italian Air Force, not in the usual triple casket destined for a sarcophagus beneath the foundations of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Additionally, he has plans to pray, read, write, play his beloved Mozart and perhaps adopt a kindle of kittens in the new papal retirement home An astute theologian, Benedict XVI was one of the primary architects of the drastically needed reforms of the Second Vatican Council and perhaps in some sense anticipated the need in the future for a Pope to retire. The Teutonic mind thinks ahead, and virtually 50 years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the sudden ending of Session II (due to the death of John XXIII), Benedict decided to retire with great dignity and grace, still with the ability to positively contribute through academic research, prayer and study to the life of the vibrant and growing Church. Providentially, this seems a significant personification of his periti status as an architect of Vatican II, and distinctively German in the absoluteness of his freely made decision. Two Popes, both having witnessed the atrocities and dehumanizing effects of the Second World War mark the conclusion of the post war world and heralds the beginning of a new age of prominence for the role of the Catholic Church.
Benedict’s retirement has shaken the College of Cardinals into a pragmatic realization that the Catholic Church is most emphatically a global institution. As such, it also needs to continue the departures from normal operational procedures and transform itself through the Holy Spirit into a modern institution calling all peoples to faith, holiness and global peace and unity. The next Successor of Peter needs personal vibrancy, stamina and the ability to speak with the authority of Christ to the entire world, segregated by social, political, military and theological strives. Ideally, the new Pontiff with be multilingual, multicultural and sensitive to the great transitions Christianity is undergoing from a strictly European and Northern Hemisphere experience of faith, to one that has permeated the continent of Africa, the countries of South America and the entire Pacific rim. While Latin used to unite the Church, multilingual and multicultural traditions are spreading the Gospel in a New Pentecost, virtually peoples of all tongues and cultures. It is precisely this renewed Pentecostal Catholic Church the new Pope will prayerfully lead and guide as the People of God.
The College of Cardinals has a daunting task. Their selection needs to be a man of diplomatic authority, knowledge of cultural and religious differences and the willingness to proclaim theological reconciliation between all Christians, our cousins in faith the Jewish People and often envisioned as adversaries in faith the Islamic world. That does not even take into consideration, the needs to reconcile generations of conflict between the Church and Science and negative responses of geopolitical proportions, including the role of women, the inclusion of dispensed priests, and the acceptance of moral norms that were never considered at the Council of Jerusalem or any subsequent councils since then. Additionally, the threats of nuclear annihilation, disproportionate allocation of global resources and the threats of pandemic diseases and potentially disastrous examples of hunger, human rights violations and above all the dangers of secular atheism.
The Bishop of Rome needs to evangelize young people, restore legal and fiscal transparency to all of the Catholic Church’s activities and yes, confess wrongdoing, seek reconciliation and collectively resolve a theological and moral transformation that will not only inspire the world, but unite the world into a global People of God, the notion envisioned by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago.
Despite the perceptions of immorality and injustices, society is seeking a great voice to restore fidelity in the Divine, in man and in the capacity of man to live in a world of peace and harmony despite accidental differences imposed by political dynasties and profit making interests in the world’s natural resources. The capacity to achieve these objectives, however, in electing a new Pope the College of Cardinals needs to “man up,” and recognize the distinctive need for a new aggiornamento of the Holy Spirit, which when ignited properly will transform the planet to one of global communications, interactions of peoples and the acceptance of universal precepts of moral rights and dignities deserved by all peoples that seek God.
Benedict’s pontificate leaves us with the great adage: God is Love. His potential successor, most likely already in Rome needs to emerge and transform the Catholic world order that in entirely inclusive of all peoples, in peace and love with a strong voice, ultimately to faith in God and the dignity of all mankind.
Veni Creator Spiritus! Come Holy Spirit! Give us a global Pope with faith, tenacity and courage to change the world.