On Thursday at 2 p.m. Eastern time, a white-clad figure lifted off in a helicopter from a green pad in the smallest nation-state of the world. This lift-off was historic. The 265th successor of Peter left the office of Bishop of Rome, which carries with it the title of supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. Benedict XVI — the enigmatic theologian pope — became Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. An era ended.
History is being made. No move by the papacy is as historic as Benedict XIV’s leaving the Holy See. Nothing is comparable to this action. It is comparable to the call of John XXIII, supposedly the caretaker pope, who called for a Council in 1962. Papal elections release an adrenaline of hope in the bloodstream of the world. The world watches. The world waits. The world wonders about the church.
Soon Cardinal Electors will assemble in conclave to elect the 266th successor of Peter. There will be no successor for Benedict XVI. The Church does not live by pope alone. The man and manner and face will change with the papal election. The message will remain inviolate. That is the heart of Catholic — Roman Catholic — faith.
There will be speculations about the new pope — his chosen name, his country of origin, his age, his temperament, his experience, his program for governance of the Church in the 21st century. What will change? What will endure in the change of the shepherd?
The marks of the Church are: the Church is One. The Church is Holy. The Church is Catholic. The Church is apostolic. We can become more concerned with church-ianity rather than Christ-ianity. What will be the concern for the new pope?
A concern for the 21st-century Church is the unnoticed and under-reported news that 100,000 Christians die each year for the faith.
The ritual of white smoke from the burnt ballots in the Sistine Chapel will signal that Peter has a new successor. The world will look in astonishment as the white puffs spiral upward from the antique chimney. The message of Jesus Christ will not go up with the papal smoke but go out to all the nations of the world.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is message of salvation and healing for all the world. It is not a message of amputation.
As Benedict XVI fades from governance, the power of his words merit continued reflection: “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, the encounter with Christ.” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger spoke those words signaling human dignity at the Inaugural Mass in April 2005.
Christians are in the middle of Lent — the middle point between Ash Wednesday and Easter.
Father John P. Rosson is pastor of St. Mary’s Our Lady of the Lake Roman Catholic Church in Cooperstown.
*Editor's note: column changed at 12:33 p.m. March 4 to correc Pope Benedict XVI's name.