Thoughts on Pope's Resignation
By Fr. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB
February 27, 2013
I have wanted to address a letter to you all for nearly two weeks now. There is such an intense atmosphere in Rome since Pope Benedict announced his resignation on February 11. I say “intense,” struggling for a more precise word, but there is a dizzying range of reactions and feelings— in myself, in the people from many different countries whom I encounter daily, in the various archbishops and cardinals with whom I occasionally have contact in my work, and in the media, whether friendly or not. It is a lot to try to sort out.
I don’t pretend to have any special insight as to what it all means or will mean. I have no inside track on who the new pope might be, and I’m pretty sure there is no such inside track. Even so, I do feel the privilege of being in Rome at this historic time, and I want to share with you some of my experiences because I believe they belong to us all, to my monastic community and to my seminary community. I hope I share best simply by recording some of what I have done.
The Pope resigned on Monday before Ash Wednesday, when he usually comes here to Sant’ Anselmo and begins a procession in prayer with Benedictines and Dominicans to Santa Sabina (down the block from us) for the Ash Wednesday liturgy. That traditional liturgy, in which I have participated many times with Pope Benedict and before him with Pope John Paul II, was changed to St. Peter’s because of vast crowds wanting to see Pope Benedict, knowing this would be his last public Mass as pope. Nonetheless, the Pope had kindly asked that we Benedictines and Dominicans still be involved, and several hundred of us formed the penitential procession. Rather than walking the streets of the Aventino while chanting the litany of the saints, we walked slowly, single file down the whole length of St. Peter’s to the melody of the same chants that were so familiar to me from these processions through the years.
We had front row seats at the strange, historic event. The liturgy in that space is, of course, beautiful and grand; and the texts and scriptures of Ash Wednesday, along with the austere sign of ashes cast upon so many thousands of heads, make for strong prayer. But I felt an peculiar sadness, not to mention other unrecognizable emotions, as I kept on thinking that this is Pope Benedict’s last public Mass and his last homily. There was a bizarre sense of this somehow being his funeral, but he was the main celebrant. In any case, it was a privilege to be so directly involved in this Mass. The Pope’s homily was forceful, as always, but I couldn’t stop also thinking, “Am I not to hear any more of these wonderful homilies again?”
At the end of the Mass Cardinal Bertone gave a short speech addressed to the Holy Father that tried to put some words to what everyone was feeling. This was followed by a long steady, very long, applause. I read in the papers next day that it lasted some four minutes. It was a unique kind of applause. Often an applause will build, might turn into shouts, will achieve a rhythmic unison, will fade and perhaps pick up strength again. But this applause was just steady and strong. For myself, though, I felt frustrated, and perhaps others did as well. I thought, “Is this our only thanks, is this our only closure to the extraordinary ministry of this Pope? Do we just clap, and then he goes away?”
There are many opinions, inevitably, about the Pope’s resignation. In this context I don’t presume to share my own. One can’t help but have them, but I’m not inclined to think that they are particularly significant right now. Pope Benedict made this decision, as he said, with a clear and serene conscience. We have to trust in that and pray fervently for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the choice of his successor. History will have much to say which cannot be said now inside these events. There will be much to say because, for better or for ill, this papal resignation certainly “changes the game” of who is pope, what being pope means, and how does a pope live out his ministry in rough and tumble times. I think it is this “Game Changer” dimension of the Pope’s decision that renders the atmosphere of the City so intense in these days— intense and confused. At the very least, it is “quite interesting.”
Sunday, February 24, was the last Angelus blessing that Pope Benedict would give. I decided to go to Piazza San Pietro to receive this blessing. I had been there as he walked out on the balcony just after having been elected and received his first blessing then. I wanted to receive it again one last time. I went with Msgr. Kevin Irwin, the fine liturgist from Catholic University of America and my good friend. (He is in Rome this semester with CUA’s study abroad program.) Msgr. Steven Lopes invited us to join him on Cardinal Levada’s terrace, which has an amazing view of the whole piazza and the window from which the Pope would speak. Cardinal Levada had not yet returned from the States. Before I went up, I lingered in the piazza as it continued to fill with enormous crowds of people streaming in. There were all kinds of people in various sorts of lively groups. The papers next day said there were some 200,000 people there. But in the end it was good to be above all this and see it from the perspective of the Cardinal’s terrace. On the opposite side of the street I could see Cardinal Sandri all alone on his terrace. (Could he be the next pope?) On the roof of the building opposite I could also see Cardinal Ouellet. (Could he be the next pope?) Then I could Archbishop Fisichella, along with Msgr. Graham Bell and many others.
I hope I don’t do wrong in confessing that somehow I found the Pope’s short address disappointing. I can’t imagine I was alone. It was just a regular Angelus address delivered as usual, with only a slight acknowledgement of the fact that he would never stand at this window and give his blessing again. In some ways this is typical of his consistent refusal to let attention fall on him. But is it possible not to let attention fall on the Pope in a moment like this? There was such an huge crowd there, obviously wanting to express its love and appreciation, many having come long distances to do so; and he allowed so little scope for that. Why?
Sant’ Anselmo is a rich place to live and try to absorb the meaning of all the questions these events provoke. That same Sunday evening, for example, Abbot Jean Charles Nault was here from the Abbey of St. Wandrille in France, and Fr. Geraldo Gonzalez y Lima (Brazil) gathered a nice group for a small dinner in the Abbot Primate’s parlor. Present were Fr. Olivier Marie Sarr and his confrere Br. Paul Kolié (Senegal), Fr. Luigi Gioia (Italy), Fr. Xavier Joly (France) Fr. Wolfgang Fischer (Austria), Fr. Fadi Imad (Lebanon), two lay people from France, and myself. Abbot Jean Charles had just come from a visit with Cardinal Ouellet since they are friends from the time when the Cardinal (before becoming a cardinal) was professor at the Lateran and on his thesis board. (I too was on that same board with the future cardinal, and that was the first time I met him. I’ve seen him on several other occasions since, and he always remembered that time. He clearly has high esteem for Abbot Jean Charles.) Obviously with Abbot Jean Charles fresh from such a visit, we had plenty for a lively discussion all evening.
Today, February 27, was Pope Benedict’s last general audience. Ecclesiastical schools cancelled school this morning so that people could go to the audience, and many in our house went. I did not go myself but chose to watch it live on television. I wanted to see the whole crowd and the many faces in it, which you can’t actually do if you are part of it. I especially wanted to see which cardinals and bishops would be there and knew that the television would keep scanning that part of the crowd. (And it did.)
It was a beautiful sunny morning, even it quite cold (around 40 degrees). The Pope’s words were much more satisfying that Sunday’s Angelus address. He spoke directly about his resignation and spoke again of the reasons for it. He reflected back on his years as pope and offered many thanks. He expressed a sense of being united with the whole Church. His beautiful words are, of course, available to any who want to read them; so I don’t take it as my task even to attempt to summarize. I just report that there was great warmth in the exchange and more ample scope given to people’s desire to express their love and gratitude toward him. At the end he spoke of St. Benedict, “whose name I bear,” and said that Benedict serves as an example for him of the new life of prayer he intends to take up within the heart of the Vatican. He seems to intend to make his presence there, among other things, a symbolic act: “… in the service of prayer, I remain, so to speak, within the enclosure of St. Peter.”
Tonight at Vespers all of Sant’ Anselmo’s students who come from outside (some 250) will join us in a special prayer for the Holy Father. Tomorrow is the Pope’s last day in office, with no public appearances scheduled. He will meet with all the cardinals in the morning and fly by helicopter to Castel Gandolfo at 5 p.m. I imagine we will hear him fly over, and I suspect, if I hear that, I’ll experience yet another little prick to my heart. What a man of stature, what a great, great man God has given to the Church!
Having you all in my thoughts and prayers, I wish you, the Pax romana!