The Pope out Back and the Conclave



February 13, 2013

By Cornelius Sullivan


Pope Benedict in the monastery in the Vatican Gardens might influence the Conclave. The two last Popes, he and Pope John Paul II, will have influence because they appointed most of the electing cardinals. Uniquely, Ratzinger will be a living presence. He will become “Bishop of Rome Emeritus”, and he will be Cardinal Ratzinger again. But what will he be called “The Pope out Back”, “The Old Pope”, “The Pope in the Garden”? The Italians show their proprietary attitude toward the papacy by calling Popes, for example,  Papa Wojtyla and Papa Ratzinger. His Papal Ring will be cut in half. It was both kissed by pilgrims and used as his official seal.


Robert Moynihan, Editor of Inside the Vatican Magazine, has pointed out that to retire a Pope does not “resign” but rather “renounces” the office. Moynihan also points out in his news letter of today that The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, was quoted today as saying: “I think it is a mistake for him to announce that he will be living inside the Vatican. The Vatican belongs to the new Pope, and Benedict needs the Pope’s permission to live there.” Moynihan reported that without comment, but for me, Rev. Reese appears to value correctness over charity or appropriateness.


Cardinal Wojtyla and Cardinal Ratzinger were the bright young intellects of Vatican Council II, and as that event’s fiftieth anniversary is here now, Papa Ratzinger has been calling for a re-examination of what that was really about. Cardinal Ratzinger did try to resign many times but Pope John Paul II would not let him. When you resign there has to be someone to accept it. Maybe that’s why he has to “renounce”, he initiates and completes the act himself before God. Do some think that God disapproves because lightning struck the Dome of Saint Peters? I’m not so sure that is approval or disapproval. Does lightning strike Saint Peters more than it hits the Eiffel Tower? The tower is higher but there may be more electrical storms in Rome’s warmer climate. Would that signify that God likes the French more than he likes Catholics. Give God some space.

Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about conclaves when he presented on March 6, 2003, Pope John Paul II’s poem Roman Triptych, Meditations, about the Sistine Chapel were the pontiff urges the Cardinal electors in Conclave to look up for guidance from Michelangelo’s fresco paintings.

Ratzinger said, “From the interior eyes of the Pope in a fresh way, there derives once again the memory of the conclaves of August and October 1978. Since I was also present, I know well how we were exposed to those images in the hour of the important decisions, how they challenged us and how they instilled in our souls the greatness of our responsibility. The Pope speaks to the Cardinals of the future conclave, ‘after my death’, and says that Michelangelo's vision will speak to them. The word ‘con-clave’ imposes the thought of the keys, of the patrimony of the keys handed to Peter. To place these keys in the right hands: this is the immense responsibility of those days.”

I heard someone say that Pope Benedict is preparing to die in prayer and reflection. That fits with his call for believers to live the faith in a personal way. The way that Pope John Paul II died was seen as a pro-life statement on the world stage reaffirming his central teaching about the great dignity of the human individual created in God’s image, regardless of accidental non essential elements, such as good health and ability. Pope Benedict does not want to die on stage and he sends a different message, that he has prayed over this decision, and that he wants to prepare to meet God.  If he died carrying the cross on Good Friday in the Coliseum, that would be dramatic. If he died on the plane going to World Youth Day in Rio, that could detract from the joy of the event. I suspect that he has chosen well for himself.


As Cardinal, as head of the Inquisition, Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was called God’s Rottweiller, and that resurfaced again when he was chosen Pope. Most of the world knows now, that he does not fit that description. If he must be compared to a dog, and I don’t want to be disrespectful, he should be a Bedlington Terrier. They look like lambs. They are intelligent, serious, determined, and when they wag their tails, they don’t wag their whole back end, (as the silly Springer Spaniel of my boyhood did), it is a wagging more like a slight smile. And they have brilliant white hair.