Good news for everyone

The death of a pope and the election of his successor bring much of the Catholic world to Rome. The Christian world outside of the visible confines of the Catholic Church also looks to Rome with not only interest but fraternal concern and prayerful support. The voyage of Christ's Church through history is linked inextricably, but not exclusively, to the barque of Peter.

The cardinals are obliged in canon law to be in Rome. Thousands of others come to grieve and to pray. Then there are the legions of journalists who come to tell one of the last great global stories. I am in the latter two categories.

This time there was no death and no grieving, but rather an abdication and a farewell. That cast a different light over the historic rituals. Indeed, the dominant question facing the Church was what a papal abdication meant. Did it make sense? What meaning did the Lord Jesus intend for us to take from it?

When I arrived in Rome, Benedict had already taken his leave of the Vatican and retired to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence. While the public reaction of cardinals and bishops has been laudatory of Benedict's humility and courage in resigning, privately there is a palpable sense of unease and fear that the Holy Father has made a grave mistake that will damage the papacy and the Church.

That doesn't mean that the public statements are false. Indeed, the Catholic mind and heart are pulled in opposite directions. Such a novelty must surely be a mistake, given that the tradition points in the opposite direction, no? Catholics desire to follow the Pope's lead, and in the case of Benedict XVI, a man of such enormous wisdom and love for that very same tradition, there is a strong inclination to trust his judgment. So publicly, the former is spoken while privately, the latter is pondered and puzzled over.

A Papal Abdication

Pope Benedict XVI's renunciation of the See of Peter occasioned much commentary about how rare a papal resignation is. Many have said that it has been 600 or 700 years, depending on how one counts. It is more radical than that. What the Holy Father did has never been done in the history of the Church. Ever. There have been a few papal resignations in history. Two or three are from the first centuries, about which there exists great historical uncertainty. Those early cases related to exile or persecution; namely, the pope was driven out or pressured by the imperial power.

The cases about which we do have good historical knowledge come from a turbulent period in papal history. Benedict IX assumed the papacy in 1032, installed by powerful family connections. By all accounts a corrupt and violent man, his tenure became increasingly untenable and he was forced out in 1044, restored in 1045, causing deadlock, which he resolved by accepting payment to resign later that same year. He came back in 1047, before finally being deposed by the emperor definitively in 1048. The whole sorry chapter bears no relevance to today. Gregory XII resigned in 1415. At the time, there were three claimants to be the legitimate pope, and a great council of both ecclesiastical and civil powers was required to sort out the mess. The solution was to depose the two rival claimants and persuade Gregory XII to resign, which he did, clearing the way to elect a legitimate and undisputed successor. Again, a situation that is not a precedent for today.

That leaves Pope Celestine V, who resigned in 1294. In the summer of 1294, the papacy had been vacant for over two years. The cardinals were deadlocked and could not agree on a candidate. An 80-year-old monk reputed for his ascetical discipline wrote to the conclave, warning them that if they did not discharge their duty and elect a pope, they would face God's wrath. The exhausted conclave responded by choosing the monk himself, Pietro del Morrone. He initially refused but eventually gave in (or was coerced?) and was crowned in July 1294. Six decades of monastic life had left him ill-prepared to govern the Church, and he was soon overwhelmed and incompetent, and all too aware that others around him were seeking to manipulate his weakness to their own ends. Manifestly inadequate to the task, he promulgated a decree that permitted the pope to abdicate, and then did so. His papacy lasted five months.

Therefore, there is no precedent in the entire history of the Church for a pope, elected legitimately and without dispute, and manifestly able to function as pope, to resign. Furthermore, there is no precedent for a pope to resign on grounds of diminished health given that every pope experiences diminished health sometime before he dies. So why then might Pope Benedict have done something never before done?

Extending Recent Reforms?

The Holy Father hinted at an answer in his abdication address, noting that the "rapid changes" of "today's world" required rather more strength than he currently has. This echoes the teaching of Vatican II in its decree on bishops, Christus Dominus: "Since the pastoral office of bishops is so important and weighty, diocesan bishops and others regarded in law as their equals, who have become less capable of fulfilling their duties properly because of the increasing burden of age or some other serious reason, are earnestly requested to offer their resignation from office either at their own initiative or upon the invitation of the competent authority."

The next year, in 1966, Pope Paul VI decreed that bishops were "earnestly requested of their own free will" to resign at age 75. By 1983, this was no longer an invitation but an obligation in canon law. Likewise, in 1970, Venerable Paul VI decreed that cardinals had to give up all their offices, including the right to vote in the conclave, upon reaching 80 years of age.

The 1983 code, which formalized the retirement age for bishops, also provided for the renunciation of his office by the Bishop of Rome.

So while utterly without precedent, Pope Benedict's decision can be read as being consistent with what he calls the "hermeneutic of reform"—the correct interpretation of Vatican II. On that reading, the Holy Father's abdication remains a remarkable novelty in itself, but at the same time a gradual extension of an accepted principle to new territory, exercising as Bishop of Rome a provision that is already required of all other bishops.

It is consistent with Pope Benedict's approach in liturgical matters, which has been to expand the realm of the possible by the personal exercise of existing options, rather than making new legislation. Utterly novel? Yes. In continuity with established practice? Also yes.

An Utter Novelty

The proper Catholic intuition about an utter novelty is that doing so may well be a grave mistake. Certainly not a grave mistake, but plausibly so, given that tradition exists in part to protect us from dangerous novelties. In the light of Vatican II, Benedict's choice can be plausibly presented as both considered and measured. It is also necessary, though, to consider the adverse consequences of the abdication. To do so is not to lack any loyalty to Benedict himself, who in other contexts has invited disagreement with his analysis, as the fruit of engagement borne of goodwill.

To look at the other side is also not to question Benedict's holiness, which is quite manifest. Saint Pius V was a holy man whose excommunication of Elizabeth I is widely considered a mistake. Saint Robert Bellarmine presided over the first Galileo trial. Even saints can disagree with each other, as began with Peter and Paul in the early Church.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York addressed those uneasy with the papal abdication in a letter titled The Gift of Peter:

"All of us who witnessed the last years of Blessed John Paul II may have been surprised that Benedict would relinquish the office that his predecessor lived out until he was stripped even of his ability to speak. Pope Benedict's announcement on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes called to mind the last foreign visit by Blessed John Paul II, which was to Lourdes itself in August 2004. It was an occasion of deep emotion, as he spoke of himself as a sick man among the sick. Pope Benedict has chosen, "after repeatedly examining my conscience before God," a different path. Catholics ought not be distressed by that, as if one choice implies that something is lacking in the other. Holiness is not uniformity, and the history of the Church provides many examples of holy men and women taking different decisions—think of Peter and Paul, Augustine and Jerome, Ignatius and Philip Neri, or Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day. Even the saints come to different conclusions, and different circumstances require different responses. So it is possible to recall with admiration the decision of Blessed John Paul II to suffer to the end and, at the same time, to admire Pope Benedict's humility and courage in laying down, for the good of the Church, the office entrusted to him. And if we remain puzzled as to the will of God in these decisions, then that too can be a gift, for there is nothing more important than to reflect upon the will of God."

Holiness does not mean that particular decisions are good ones. To that point, just last December, Pope Benedict declared that Pope Paul VI lived a life of heroic holiness and declared him "Venerable," meaning worthy of being declared a saint. That Pope Paul was holy does not mean his decisions were good ones. Cardinal Ratzinger himself said so, quite dramatically, while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"I was dismayed by the prohibition of the old missal, since nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy," wrote Ratzinger in 1997 about Paul VI's reform. "The old building was demolished, and another built, to be sure largely using materials from the previous one and even using the old building plans. There is no doubt that this new missal in many respects brought with it a real improvement and enrichment; but setting it as a new construction over what had grown historically, forbidding the results of this historical growth, thereby makes the liturgy appear to be no longer a living development but the product of erudite work and juridical authority; this has caused us enormous harm."

Ratzinger did not dispute that Venerable Paul VI had the canonical right to do as he did, just that it was a calamitous mistake, in part because "nothing of the sort had ever happened in the entire history of the liturgy."

Benedict's resignation is precisely that—nothing of the sort has ever happened in history. So we need to be cautious. It may be that it constitutes a gradual extension of an accepted practice that may indeed serve the Church well. It is a near-universal judgment that the mandatory retirement age for bishops has served the Church well, especially as it is now routine for men to live into their 80s and 90s.

It is also possible, 25 years hence—as Ratzinger wrote about Paul VI's reforms—that the abdication will be judged to have been an enormous mistake. It is too early to make a judgment either way, but even now it is possible to foresee how this will change the papacy.

While it gives a future pope the practical liberty to resign as Benedict has done, it also will make it much more difficult for him to remain in office. I have little doubt that if Venerable Paul VI had resigned in the 1970s, Blessed John Paul II would have found it impossible to remain until his death—the pressure for resignation would have been immense. The Church would have been deprived of his great witness and the grace of his death.

It was for that reason—the implication that frail popes should resign—that Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who spent 40 years as John Paul's personal secretary, reiterated on the day of Benedict's abdication address that John Paul stayed until the end because "Christ did not come down off the Cross." When that was judged rather impolitic, the next day the Holy See Press Office issued a statement from Dziwisz, full of praise for Benedict and his decision. That small hiccup is a sign of disagreements to come over papal health and resignations.

Or consider the international assault on Pope Benedict launched in 2010 over sexual abuse cases. I know something of that media battle, being involved in a minor way. Had the possibility of a papal resignation been in the air, it would have been a much longer and nastier fight. A freely chosen papal abdication, unprecedented as it is, changes the papal office forever; whether for better or worse remains to be seen.

Habemus Papam!

The news came 24 hours after it began. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been elected pope in only five ballots and took the name of Francis—the first Latin American, the first Jesuit and the first Francis.

I was broadcasting at the time, and my host greeted the news of white smoke with the great exclamation: Habemus Papam! We have a Pope! Even those reporters who would have been hard pressed to know the difference between a genitive and a genocide were practising their Latin all week: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum! Habemus papam!

I announce to you a great joy! We have a pope!

It struck me as I heard those famous words all week, in anticipation of hearing them from the balcony, that they can be considered a summary of the Christian life. Consider:

Annuntio—The Christian message is something that needs to be announced. The Archangel Gabriel announced the Good News to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The angels announced it to the shepherds. Jesus announced the coming of the Kingdom. Saint Paul teaches us that in order for people to believe, they must first be told. Saint John tells us that we proclaim what we have seen. Yes, we wait for the Good News to be announced. But then we must announce it in turn. The New Evangelization requires us to be evangelists, that is, proclaimers of the Gospel. Each one of us is called to step out, as it were, onto the balconies of our lives and announce the Good News that is Jesus Christ!

Vobis—Who is this good news for? It is for everyone. From the central loggia of St. Peter's Basilica, the cardinal protodeacon announces the good news to those in the square, the great arms of which reach out to embrace the whole world. When the Pope appears on the balcony, he gives his blessing urbi et orbi—to the city and to the world. The Good News of Jesus Christ is for everyone. It is certainly not something we grasp on to and hold on to for ourselves alone. The Church in a certain sense exists for the world and its salvation. The pope that the whole world awaits exists for the whole world in turn. His voice goes out to the ends of the earth, as the psalmist sings. In these days the whole world's attention is fixed on Rome. It is a reminder to us that the message handed on to us from the saints is for the whole world. The Church is always on mission, and each Christian should be on mission, too, starting with those closest to us.

Gaudium—Joy! What a blessing it was for the cardinals to celebrate Laetare Sunday—the Sunday of Joy—in their Roman parishes just before the conclave began. What the Church offers to the world is joy. Joy even amid the manifest sinfulness and suffering that we see all around us, and within us, too. The great joy that is announced at the end of the conclave is not just for rare occasions. We enter that joy through prayer. We encounter that joy in the Holy Eucharist. We encounter that joy in the forgiveness of sins. We encounter that joy in the simple grace of being Christians, together in our families and with our friends. And so the Christian is joyful. We ought to be joyful, which is more than being cheerful, though that is a good start. The first step to sharing our faith with the great vobis is to be joyful ourselves. The joyful one attracts others who seek joy, and therefore seek the source of true joy.

Magnum—Great! We proclaim not just an ordinary joy, an adequate joy, a plain joy. We proclaim a great joy. Pope Francis knows well the marvellous motto of the Jesuits—ad maiorem Dei gloriam (for the greater glory of God). Christianity is not about making the world slightly better, about making things a little more tolerable, about aspiring to a certain acceptable mediocrity. Benedict XVI reminded us that we are not to tell the world how to become better as much as we are to proclaim the reality of a better world—the Kingdom of God already unfolding among us, and the fullness of which we hope to enjoy in Heaven. Every man and woman, especially the young, desires some great mission for which to live, some great cause to give his or her life to. That great mission has a name: Jesus Christ. That great cause can be found in His Church.

A pope who calls himself Francis

Those who are eager to understand who Pope Francis is, and what he might do, would be wise to look at the saint whose name he took, Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis might well be on his way to becoming misunderstood in the same way that Saint Francis is today.

There are few saints more popular than Francis of Assisi—in Italy, where he is the national patron and also throughout the world. But the Saint Francis of popular imagination is not real.

The popular image of the saint of Assisi is a man who spoke kindly to animals and lived simply, meandering through meadows as if on a perpetual picnic, accompanied by butterflies and singing birds by day, campfire songs by night. He is a figure of reconciliation and peace, as in the words of the famous "peace prayer" traditionally attributed to him: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon."

There is truth in all this—Saint Francis saw God's glory in the natural world, and he was a figure of dialogue and reconciliation. His famous voyage to meet the Muslim sultan led to a Christian presence in the Biblical lands, something the Catholic Church has entrusted to the Franciscans for centuries. Not for nothing did both John Paul II and Benedict XVI hold interfaith meetings in Assisi to pray for peace.

At the same time though, Francis was zealous to live the Gospel fully, and to reform the Church. His famous vision of the Crucifix that spoke to him, commanding him to "repair my church, which is falling into ruin" was not about restoring the frescoes. Francis was demanding, first of himself and then of others, engaging in severe penances. He was formidable in the face of opposition. He knew that to rebuild the Church meant confronting those who attack her from without and, far more important, those who despoil her with filth from within.

Pope Francis knows all this. As a priest and bishop in Argentina, he lived through difficult decades when life was not a picnic, and when the Church needed defending against violent attacks from without and against those who betrayed the Gospel of Jesus Christ from within. He knows that reform means not changing Christian doctrine to make it easier to live, but showing forth the beauty of the Christian life so that the consequent demands might be more eagerly embraced. As a Jesuit superior, his efforts to lead as Saint Francis did, with gentleness and firmness, were rejected, so much so that he was exiled by his own order to teach high school in a remote part of the country. Pope John Paul rescued him and made him Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Recent days have focused on Pope Francis' simplicity of life and his gentleness. He took the bus with the cardinals instead of the papal car. He walked "home" from meeting the cardinals. He paid his own hotel bill. He eschewed some of the formal papal vestments. He smiles and is quick with a warm embrace.

All that is true enough. But like Saint Francis, he is demanding, because the Christian life is demanding. He spoke twice in two days about the danger of the devil, and the need to be on guard lest we be led away from God. The devil of which Pope Francis speaks, as Saint Francis did, is real, and the remedy is the same: faith in Jesus Christ.

"Let us never give in to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day," Pope Francis said when he met with all the cardinals. "Do not give in to pessimism and discouragement. We have the firm certainty that the Holy Spirit gives the Church, with His mighty breath, the courage to persevere and also to seek new methods of evangelization, to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The Christian truth is attractive and persuasive because it responds to the deep needs of human existence, convincingly announcing that Christ is the only Saviour of the whole person and of all persons. This announcement is as valid today as it was at the beginning of Christianity when there was a great missionary expansion of the Gospel."

That is Christianity without trimming at the edges, proclaiming the necessity of Jesus Christ while seeking to attract others who do not share the faith, by making the truth beautiful rather than by coercion. But it takes courage and perseverance, which is to say that it is demanding.

Pope Francis did indeed walk home through the Vatican gardens after meeting the cardinals. He was not planning a picnic. He was preaching the faith.

Hidden from the world, but for the world

The conclave is one of the world's last great public dramas, unfolding on the world's greatest stage—the piazza of Bernini, the great basilica of Bramante and his successors, the frescoes of Michelangelo. Such a project could only have been launched by the deepest ambitions of the human soul, and the ambition of the soul is a dangerous thing—it can soar to the heights, or plumb the depths. The scale and financing of papal projects produced the scandals that led, in part, to the Reformation and the division of the Christian Church in the West. Yet today, St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel are the default images for the world's sacred imagination.

Michelangelo's genius was to adorn the chapel with the entire history of God's creation and salvation. As each cardinal elector cast his ballot, he had to ascend the steps to the altar, and before the terrible and fearsome beauty of Jesus in Michelangelo's The Last Judgment, make the following oath: "I call as my witness Christ the Lord, who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who, before God, I think should be elected."

Even the most cynical and worldly cardinal might tremble at that moment, which is likely why the ritual requires it. It is a human and divine drama unfolding in the place where the artist's inspiration can only have been divine.

The conclave is mysterious not only because we can't see what is happening but because it presents us with a paradox, which is always how the infinite appears in a finite world. The conclave refuses to accommodate itself to the world outside, even if the fruit of its work, the new pope, immediately presents himself on the balcony to give the traditional urbi et orbi (to the city and to the world) blessing. He appears not to bless the Church, but the city and the world. The conclave refuses to let the world see its work, but then elects a pope for the world. It is astonishingly audacious and the world would be right to take offence if it were not the will of God. The Church believes it is, and therefore proceeds. Some of the world believes that it is not, and understandably takes offence.

Yet most of the world does not take offence, but delight. In a world where everyone is vying for our attention, our attention is caught by those things that do not seek it. Like the ancient world needed its Temple, so this world needs its sanctuary. Indeed, the Sistine Chapel was built according to the dimensions believed to be those of the Temple in Jerusalem. Every day, the Sistine Chapel accommodates thousands upon thousands, who come partly to see the frescoes and partly to see the place where, from time to time, they are forbidden to be.

A chapel open to the world, but on occasion completely sealed off. An election completed in secret, and then presented to the world. It is the meeting of opposites or, better, extremes. It is the meeting place of the human and the divine. Only such a place is fit for making a pope. Only such a place can capture the attention of all.

The Sign of Jonah in the Sistine

Michelangelo's genius unfolded in two stages. First, the story of creation on the ceiling, and the beginning of salvation history in the three panels dedicated to Noah. Second, The Last Judgment on the altar wall. So the visitor—or the cardinal elector—looks back upon creation and the beginning of salvation while preparing himself for judgment and, by the grace of God, beatitude.

The creation series on the ceiling and The Last Judgment are not the only masterpieces in the Sistine Chapel. One detail of particular note is the figure of Jonah, who sits at the top of the altar wall, above The Last Judgment and before the first panel of God's creative work, separating light from darkness. When the conclave opens, the cardinals process directly toward Jonah.

"Jonah is the prophet sent by God to preach conversion to the pagans," wrote Sandro Magister, a noted Vatican journalist. "He goes, reluctantly, but rebels against the idea that God should use mercy with the repentant city of Nineveh. In the vault of the Sistine, he sees that sin accompanies the history of man ever since the flood, and even before, from the days of Adam and Eve. As an upright man, he wants the sinner to be punished. But then his glance is fixed on the very first act of God, who is creating light. And he understands that God cannot bear that all that He has made from the beginning of the world should be lost, but only wants to save it. That ‘sign of Jonah' which Jesus applies to Himself in Matthew 12:40 will therefore weigh upon the cardinals gathered to elect the successor of Peter."

Magister, who wrote that on the day that the conclave opened, may have had an inkling of what was going to happen the next day, when Pope Francis was elected. Indeed, after the election, Magister pointed to a remarkable interview from 2007 in which then Cardinal Bergoglio gave an indication of what temptations the Church faces in her efforts to preach the Gospel.

"Jonah had everything clear," Cardinal Bergoglio said. "He had clear ideas about God, very clear ideas about good and evil. On what God does and on what He wants, on who was faithful to the Covenant and who instead was outside the Covenant. He had the recipe for being a good prophet. God broke into his life like a torrent. He sent him to Nineveh. Nineveh was the symbol of all the separated, the lost, of all the peripheries of humanity—of all those who are outside, forlorn. Jonah saw that the task set on him was only to tell all those people that the arms of God were still open, that the patience of God was there and waiting, to heal them with His forgiveness and nourish them with His tenderness. Only for that had God sent him. He sent him to Nineveh, but he instead ran off in the opposite direction, toward Tarshish.

"What he was fleeing was not so much Nineveh as the boundless love of God for those people," Bergoglio continued. "It was that that didn't come into his plans. God had come once… ‘and I'll see to the rest': that's what Jonah told himself. He wanted to do things his way, he wanted to steer it all. His stubbornness shut him in his own structures of evaluation, in his pre-ordained methods, in his righteous opinions. He had fenced his soul off with the barbed wire of those certainties that, instead of giving freedom with God and opening horizons of greater service to others, had finished by deafening his heart. How the isolated conscience hardens the heart! Jonah no longer knew that God leads His people with the heart of a Father. Our certainties can become a wall, a jail that imprisons the Holy Spirit. Those who isolate their conscience from the path of the people of God don't know the joy of the Holy Spirit that sustains hope. That is the risk run by the isolated conscience. Of those who from the closed world of their Tarshish complain about everything or, feeling their identity threatened, launch themselves into battles only in the end to be still more self-concerned and self-referential."

In his first days, Pope Francis spoke several times about a worldliness that can creep into the Church's witness. There is not only the obvious worldliness that arises from attachment to material goods, but also the worldliness that applies fallen man's standard of justice instead of God's own justice, which is never separated from His mercy. An entirely worldly outlook cannot comprehend God's mercy. Pope Francis said on his first Sunday as pope: "God never tires of forgiving us. We are the ones who tire of asking for forgiveness."

A new pontificate begins, as they have for centuries, in the inspired splendour of the Sistine Chapel. In time, the Biblical signs that will shape the pontificate will emerge. Perhaps the sign of Jonah will remain central. Likely others will emerge. A pope has retired, which is new and startling. A new pope has come, which is ancient and reassuring. We prepare anew to be led on the path toward the great and terrible judgment, and the promise, by the grace of God, of blessedness with all the saints in Heaven.