You may have seen, as I did, the footage of the departure from the Vatican of Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus. There was coverage of his farewell audiences, his farewells to the Cardinals, his helicopter lifting off from the Vatican heliport and then landing at Castel Gandolfo, his brief address on the balcony of the residence there – and then he disappeared to the world.
With breathtaking humility, this man of such erudition and talent said simply: “I’m no longer the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church … Now I’m just a pilgrim beginning the last part of his journey on earth.” And then, at the stroke of 8:00 in the evening, we saw the Swiss Guards depart, and the doors of the residence closed. Since that moment the Chair of St. Peter has stood vacant.
As Benedict XVI took his leave, you may have noticed, as I did, one particularly touching scene. Just as Benedict was leaving the papal apartments, the driver who would take him to the heliport greeted him and kissed his ring. This gentleman was crying. Along with our gratitude and prayers for Benedict XVI’s long and loving service to the Church, there is an admixture of sorrow. I felt it deeply and personally as he disappeared from view.
It’s not that I can count the Pope Emeritus as personal friend – someone whom I might call on the phone or to whom I’d send an email. Although I had the privilege of seeing him and even meeting with him, those were relatively rare occasions. Most of the time, I am separated from the Holy Father by six time zones and thousands of miles. Yet, as Benedict XVI departed and the Church began to anticipate the election of a new Pontiff, I experienced a sense of aloneness. This prompted me to reflect on the importance of the ministry of the Successor of Peter not only in my life as a bishop but in the life of every Catholic.
Although most of us don’t see the Holy Father on a regular basis, he is like an earthly horizon for the practice of the faith, for every vocation in the life of the Church, and for all forms of service to the Church. After all, it was Christ himself who made Peter the rock on which the Church is built. Some two thousand years ago, it was Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who boldly recognized Jesus’ identity and declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” For over two millennia, Peter has continued to speak the truth about Jesus to the whole world in the person of the Holy Father. Every time a priest preaches a homily or offers instruction in the faith, every time parents teach the faith to their children or a catechist forms adults or children in the faith, they are standing secure on Peter’s confession of the faith.
It was to Peter that Christ gave the keys of His Church and made him shepherd of the whole flock. He entrusted to Peter as leader of the Apostles the power of “binding and loosing” – the power to govern the Church and the power to forgive sins. This power has been transmitted to Peter’s successors, the Popes, and to the successors of the Apostles, the Bishops. As Peter’s Successor, the Pope “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and the whole company of the faithful.” Standing with Peter bishops throughout the world are united with each other and are able to strengthen each other in the pastoral care of their dioceses and in serving the Church throughout the world. Standing with Peter every Catholic has a sense of the importance of his or her baptismal call to embrace a vocation to love and to be a witness to Christ in our contemporary world.
Amid the speculation of who the next Pontiff may be, we need to pray not merely for a good manager or a good communicator but for the one really necessary quality that makes fruitful the life of the Church, namely, holiness. For it is holiness that opens for us the source of the Church’s life and vitality, Jesus Christ and the power of his death and resurrection. May the Holy Spirit guide and bless our beloved Church in the days ahead.