Non Habemus Papam

 

 

February 11, 2013

Commentary

Cornelius Sullivan- Soon we will not have a Pope. Pope Benedict XVI will retire to a monastery inside the Vatican to pray, he will no longer be the Holy Father but may remain like a God Father, not the Cosa Nostra type, more like the mostly unseen spiritual presence assumed by Catholic godfathers when they become baptismal sponsors. He has yet to define what his new title will be. He will be Cardinal Ratzinger.

 

It is easy and natural to joke about such events as the retirement of a pope because humor involves the clashes of matrixes. A friend said that the conclave should elect Joseph Ratzinger. This announcement is shocking because it is counter traditional and we thought we knew Ratzinger as a traditional pope. He has surprised at times with his daring.

 

Perhaps his decision can be best understood if we look at the theme of his pontificate, which is the compatibility of faith and reason. Not long ago I was struck by what Vatican Art Historian, Elizabeth Lev, said in the room in the Vatican Museum, that was once the private study of Pope Julius II, the Stanza della Segnatura, with the Raphael frescos of The School of Athens and The Disputation on the Holy Sacrament. She said these paintings used to be called Theology and Philosophy, but now, in the reign of Pope Benedict XVII, they can be called Faith and Reason.

 

The Vatican journalist who has been the voice of Vaticano, the EWTN television weekly of Vatican news, David Kerr, said today that Pope Benedict has supplanted the 17th and 18th Century Enlightenment errors that seperated faith and reason and the idea that religion should exist only in the private sphere. Kerr said that Benedict knows the tyranny of Relativism and has stressed that Christianity is not a philosophical system but rather a personal relationship. 

 

Benedict was daring at Regensburg, has been bold with candid interviews, and has dared to do Twitter. He never tried to emulate his revered predecessor. Not an actor, he could not be other than the university professor that he is. Bishops from around the world used to be interviewed individually. He changed the format to interviews with groups of fourteen. He conducted them as if they were university seminars.

 

Two weeks ago I watched the film, a collaboration of Italian TV RAI called, “We have a Pope”, “Habemus Papam”. It was made in 2011. A Cardinal is elected pope and at the time for him to appear on the balcony in front of the faithful in Saint Peters Square, he has an anxiety attack. Remarkably the Vatican press is able to keep the world at bay for a long time saying that the new pope is in reflection, as he hides in the Vatican. Then he escapes and stays in a hotel in Rome. The charade continues. A search finds him and he finally consents to make the balcony appearance in full papal regalia. Then he- should I ruin the ending? I was disappointed because the ending reminded me of the cheap suicide endings to films from the seventies. The author ran out of ideas. That is what a Hollywood critic said about this ending. I could not help but wonder what effect the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, a quarter of a century, in a place where history is measured in centuries, had on the writers of this film. Papa Wojtyla gave all and showed us how to die as his mentor, his Lord, had done. It was a striking contrast because in the film the man’s refusal was not based upon anything that we could understand. On the other hand, Pope Benedict’s decision has a unique character that will become understood eventually as being courageous and right for the Church and for the time.

 

This is a serious announcement no doubt chosen to be on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes “The Day of the Sick”. Out of curiosity, I looked to see what the liturgical calendar would say about February 28th. It is “Thursday of the Second Week of Lent”, not remarkable. It seems as though the choices of these dates, sacred for the former, and mundane, end of the month, for the latter, say something about the real world practicality of this decision.

 

Because Pope Benedict is the most articulate and clear writer, we can understand his reasoning from his own statement. There may be at some time more particular revelations about his health, but at this point, we can put to rest any conspiracy theories. No one knew this was coming and he said, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” And “with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome”.

 

This decision shows independence and a special humility. If you are “the chosen one” you might think that the ministry depends only on you. Pope Benedict could have created a Papal substitute of some sort to sit through the three hour Masses at Saint Peters during Holy Week, or carry the cross at the Coliseum on Good Friday, or go to Rio for World Youth Day, and he could remain Holy Father, Theologian in Chief, in his study. He did say “The pope will be in Rio, wither it is me or my successor.” He has understood that the successor to Saint Peter needs to be an apostle, which means going out to spread the Gospel.

 

With events like this, many of us wish that things could stay the same, stay as they are. After eight years, Papa Ratzinger has settled in as pope. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that the only thing constant is change. He appears in the foreground of Raphael’s School of Athens. He is the solid sculptural figure that the painter added last, only after Bramante, Pope Julius I I's architect, was able to sneak him into the Sistine Chapel to see the great revolution in painting that the sculptor had made on the ceiling. Raphael embraced change and realized that he must learn a new way to paint because of what he had seen, and in tribute he made his Heraclitus a portrait of  Michelangelo. 

 

I will miss seeing Papa Benedetto regularly. I will imagine him writing his books and still being (perhaps not walking briskly as he did) in the Vatican Gardens. Vatacanista Princess Alessandra Borghese, who has known him and dined with him with German Princess Gloria Thurn und Taxis, has said convincingly and with sincerity, that he is a sweet man. We have come to see that. He reintroduced two places for silence in the Mass, after the homily, and after communion. At those times you could see him praying and presenting the posture of prayer. Pope Saint Gregory I in 590 initially used the phrase to describe a pope, “Servant of the Servants of God”. It was repeated by Pope Benedict when he assumed his office.

 

 

The School of Athens, Raphael, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Museum

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