It’s old news by now, but it is and will continue to be of great importance for the Church. Pope Benedict XVI will step down as Pope on February 28, the first Pontiff to do so in more than 600 years. I am sure there are many Catholics and others who could not even imagine that happening. Others, while taken by surprise, consider it reasonable, even good, given the situation of the Pope’s health and the Church’s needs. And there will always be some people, antagonistic toward the Church, who will rejoice at this as just another “nail” in the Catholic Church’s coffin.
What is clear to us whose faith is firm in Christ is that the Church won’t falter one bit by the resignation of this Pope. The Church is the Body of Christ, with Christ himself as the Head. Twenty centuries of history have seen popes, bishops, priests and faithful come and go for various, and sometimes very disturbing, reasons. But the Church herself remains on mission and will do so until Christ returns at the end of time. Pope Benedict has made a clear statement that the Catholic Church is bigger than her leader and will not lose her way with his retirement, any more than it did 600 years ago when another Pope retired.
Our Catholic community will now send its Cardinals into “conclave,” that experience of being prayerfully sequestered in the Vatican for the purpose of electing Benedict’s successor. There will be days of black and, then, white smoke from the chimney high above St. Peter’s square. But within a short time, to be sure, the new Spirit-chosen Pope will appear on the balcony of the Basilica to greet and bless us. Then he and we will get on again with the urgent mission entrusted to us all, that of bringing the Good News and Christ’s saving grace to the world.
The Catholic Church has been one of—if not the most—significant institutions in the history of the last twenty centuries. She has ministered to grave sinners and produced great saints. She has been the inspiration and guide for every major development and human advancement in the history of the West, from universities to hospitals, from science to art, from liberating political systems to social justice. Those who do not know this simply do not know history and speak foolishly about her. True, the Church has not been a perfect mother, but a great mother nonetheless. And she is all of us, with this or that Pope temporarily at the helm, but with all of us, the baptized in every age, drawing the human family forward toward the final Kingdom in fidelity to the Gospel. The next Pope will be Catholic like that and we pray he will keep us like that, too.
Let us now ask for the descent of the Holy Spirit in the Sistine Chapel.