Viva Il Papa! Legacy, Elections and the Future Church

Address by Most Rev Anthony Fisher OPTheology on Tap, Parramatta, Monday 4 March 2013

1. Legacy

We speak now of Pope Benedict in the past tense. If it is hard to do when a pope dies, it is stranger when the ex-pope is still alive and living in seclusion. People may long debate the prudence of this decision and its implications for future popes. But it is clear it was the Pope’s right under canon law and it is clear that he exercised that right only after long prayer and reflection, and because he believed he was physically and mentally unable to carry on. Conspiracy theorists, prophets and journalists may claim he was forced out or just wanted a quiet life free of difficulties. But if the world has learned anything about this man over the past eight years, it is surely that he is a man of conviction and if he says it was a conscientious decision then it was just that – and not some act of self-assertion or wilfulness, cowardice or defeat.

In 2005 Pope John Paul II died. His friend and close ally for more than two decades, Joseph Ratzinger, was now 78 and had already found a place to retire with his priest-brother. It was not to be. Instead he was elected 264th successor of Peter. We must all be grateful that he embraced that grace and endured that cross for eight years. His papacy came to its end during the golden jubilee of the Second Vatican Council: if it took 400 years fully to unpack and implement the decrees of the Council of Trent, the teachings of Vatican II will require several more popes yet. John Paul and Benedict were the last ones to have actually been at the Council.

Pope Benedict will I am sure be remembered as a great Teacher-Pope. Theologian means literally God-talker. Ratzinger the great thinker turned out to be Benedict the great communicator of the Faith – a father in the sense of one who nurtures the young in faith. His unique command of the truths of Christian doctrine and his singular ability to make them come alive catechetically and homiletically were a great gift to us. He called us back to the foundations of faith in Scripture and Tradition, the Word of God alive and active in our day. His was a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’: no pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II Church, no old and new Catholic teaching. The same one Church of Christ extends across time and space and its understanding evolves organically, unpacking what has been received rather than making radical breaks with past beliefs. Benedict was convinced that that evolving Catholic truth can speak volumes to our times and he contributed literally hundreds of those volumes. By developing his profound theology as much on the kneeler as the desk, on his knees more than on his bottom, he also led the recovery of consciousness of the beauty and solemnity of the Liturgy.

If it is for such things that the world will remember Pope Benedict, Western Sydney will remember him as the Pope who canonised Mary of the Cross and gave her to us as patron of the diocese of Parramatta. As a holy man himself Benedict XVI recognised holiness in others; he recognized sanctity in Mary MacKillop, a woman of faith who helped build this country through education for the poor.

Australians also remember Benedict as our World Youth Day pope. After landing privately in this diocese he rested for a few days with us. I remember being at lunch with him at Kenthurst and being afraid someone would pinch me and wake me up from my dream! Sadly he can now walk only very short distances, slowly and painfully – but back then it was hard to keep up with him as we walked before lunch. Conversation with him was a pleasure. From the moment he entered Sydney Cove by boat, Benedict clearly loved his time in Sydney: he talked of little else for months after he got back.

Because he was a shyer man, many had feared Benedict would lack the ‘stage presence’ of John Paul. Yet in Sydney he engaged with half a million young people as their spiritual grandad. Papa is of course where we get our word Pope from. Young people recognized that this Papa truly loved them and that they could encounter God’s love in him. This contributed to his confidence with crowds of youth in his subsequent travels. How heavily his inability to attend Rio weighed in his decision to resign we may never know, but I suspect it was a significant factor: he had been told he could no longer safely travel by plane and he knew World Youth Day wouldn’t be the same without the Pope...

While with us in Sydney Pope Benedict also made his historic apology to victims of child abuse – an apology recently echoed by the NSW Bishops in their pastoral letter. He will long be remembered for having dealt with those matters with compassion and determination and for insisting that bishops improve their act too.

2. Elections

I’ve just returned from Rome where the mood was most unusual. When a pope dies people know how to mourn, but we have not real precedent for how to respond to the recent events. So there was the excitement every time Pope Benedict appeared and something like 150,000 people cheered as he gave his last angelus teaching; there was joy and thanksgiving; but there was genuine sorrow also.

In Rome I stayed in Domus Sanctæ Marthæ, where the cardinals stay during the conclave. They were already sweeping it for dust and electronic bugs. It’s a comfortable mid-range hotel, a far cry from earlier conclaves where aged cardinals slept in cots around the Apostolic Palace and went searching for toilets in the middle of the night. Sometimes in the past the Romans would cut their rations to hurry them up and on one occasion they removed the roof as an incentive! Nowadays they have bedrooms, bathrooms, chapels, meeting rooms, quiet corners for tête-à-têtes and reliable food and roofs.

But what is a conclave? Con-clave means ‘with a key’, in other words ‘lock up’. After several days of meetings, the first of which was held today, all the cardinals celebrate the special “Mass for the Election of a Pope”. Then the Cardinal electors – those aged under 80 – solemnly process into the Sistine Chapel in choir dress, chanting the Veni Creator. The MC declares extra omnes, “everyone else get out”, and locks the doors. 114 or 115 cardinals will be locked inside. The only officials who will have access to them thereafter are the Secretary of the College of Cardinals, the Papal MC and his liturgy team, and an assistant to the senior  Cardinal who will take the place of the Cardinal Dean; they are bound to secrecy for life, as are the cardinal electors. Rather like a jury the electors are cut off from the public until they decide; no-one may speak to them; there will be no newspapers, TV, radio, internet, email, phone calls or SMSes – not even FaceBook or Tweets. This protects confidentiality and ensures no outside influence on the election – except the Holy Spirit.

Journalists like to imagine all sorts of intrigues follow: electioneering, bribes, poisonings... sort of the Da Vinci Code meets the Borgias. Actually it’s more like a Liturgy. The cardinals sit surrounded by Michelangelo’s salutary frescoes of the Creation, Fall and Last Judgment. They pray together or alone, read or snore contemplatively. When due they write a name and then proceed in order of seniority to the altar, place their ballot on a paten, make their vow and tip it into a large chalice. After careful counting the results are read out. Unless two-thirds have picked the same name, they start again, two votes in the morning, two in the afternoon.

Whom will they pick? The commentators want a third world pope, a black pope, a pro-abortion-and-homosexuality pope, a feminist pope. They’ve even identified preferred candidates. Mostly they haven’t got a clue. Firstly, because as the Romans say, Chi entra papa in conclave, ne esce cardinale: who enters conclave as pope exits as cardinal. The Holy Spirit blows where He wills; cardinals look for different things to journos; and so papal elections often surprise. What the electors are looking for is, quite simply, the Spirit’s will. As they cast their ballots they will each vow that they have voted for the man they believe God wants. So we must beg the Holy Spirit to guide them in the lead up to the conclave.

How do they discern the Spirit’s will? In the same ways we do: by prayer, especially during and in front of the Eucharist; by seeking wise counsel; by thinking and talking it over discreetly. The job description given us by Christ, rather than the preferences and betting odds of the media, will be uppermost in their minds. Jesus says Peter must be a fisher of men – an evangelist netting people for God. He says Peter must be bedrock – guaranteeing the Church’s fidelity to Him and to His teaching, binding and loosing on behalf of heaven, ruling and declaring the Faith definitively. Lastly Jesus says Peter must be a shepherd after His own heart, loving more than others, guarding and guiding sheep and lambs. The media won’t tell you we need a fisher-rock-shepherd pope, but that’s what Christ wants and so what the Church wants.

Rome is buzzing with excitement at present. Today the cardinals met in ‘general congregation’ to examine the minutiae of the conclave rules and decide how many days of meetings they need before going into conclave. They are discussing “what the Spirit is saying to the churches”. Journalists are jockeying for position to see the smoke that announces the election and looking for other angles in the meantime. The world waits with baited breath for news of the election of a pope even more than it does for a US President or UN Secretary-General. Even people who do not share our faith seem to think the papacy is of crucial importance for the future of our world. Why? I think it is because deep down humanity craves to hear Christ speak again in our day and so knows His Vicar is very important.

3. Future Church

At some stage over the next few weeks someone will have at least two thirds of the cardinals’ votes. The Secretary of the College of Cardinals will be summoned, with the Papal MC and two of his assistants, and the senior Cardinal will say: “Do you accept election as Supreme Pontiff?” Once he says yes he asks the new pope “By what name do you wish to be called?” It has been suggested to me that were an Australian elected he might take a good Aussie name like ‘Bruce – in Latin, Pope “Brucius Primus”.

What will be the Church’s future under this new Vicar of Christ? Well, the Church’s future is our future, and so ultimately death, judgment, heaven and hell. We don’t know when that will be. Some imagined prophets claim to know but Christ was very clear that none but God the Father knows the day or hour, not men or angels, not even the Son in His human nature (Mt 24:36). Someone here might have only a few more seconds to live; the world might not even last till we have a new pope - so drink up! Alternatively, when the Cardinals gather in conclave in the great jubilee year 10,000 ad, they might look back to the fathers of the early Church, such as St Augustine, St John Chrysostom, St John Paul the Great and St Benedict XVI. What the future holds we do not know, but we do know Who holds the future: the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Who will be charged with leading us to Him? In his latest book ToT guest George Weigel has written that anyone who wanted to be pope should be disqualified not just for lack of humility but also for lack of sanity! “No sane man seeks the burden of the papacy. No man who knows the demands made on a pope – which range from sheer physical stamina to a deep spiritual capacity to bear the wounds of the entire Church without being bled to death by them – will seek the office. The office seeks the man.” Weigel suggests that we need a man of deep faith to propose the symphony of Catholic truth, by word and example, as a compelling alternative to other visions that shape and misshape the post-modern world. A man of natural resilience amplified by grace, of pastoral experience, a good judge of character, with courage and strategic vision, who can mould the curia to serve his Evangelically Catholic mission: that’s a good list, to which we might add that the new Pope must be a transparently holy man.

A task the new pope will inherit is that New Evangelization proclaimed by Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI but still in its infancy. How do we bring the Gospel anew to formerly Christian people, institutions and cultures that have gone cold on the Faith, become disengaged from Christ and His Church, live day-to-day as practical atheists, that is, as if God did not exist? The new pope’s first post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation will be on the new evangelization and I expect that much of his energy will be given to it as fisherman, rock and shepherd.

Tonight we give thanks for Pope Benedict and pray for him as he goes on “retreat” for an indeterminate period, like Peter imprisoned in Rome awaiting reunion with Christ. We pray for the Church that she will be granted the leadership she needs. And so we pray for Australia’s elector, George Cardinal Pell, and the other cardinals, that they will be inspired to find us another great spiritual leader.