After 11:00 a.m., PST, on February 28th, the Catholic world will be without a Supreme Pontiff. Pope Benedict XVI has told us that he is resigning his papal office at that hour. Then we shall begin a brief period of time described as Sede Vacante, (when the See is vacant). All the Cardinals soon thereafter enter a conclave, during which they will elect a new Pope. The last time this occurred was after the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2nd. By April 19th of that year, Pope Benedict XVI was chosen to be his successor. I see no reason why it should take any longer to choose a new Pope this time.
Since Benedict is the first Pope to resign in more than 600 years, those unfamiliar with church law raise new questions and seem not to realize that, even though a resignation from the papacy seldom happens, a provision is made for such an occurrence in church law. But to read the secular press, one would think that the Catholic world would be plagued with uncertainty, fear and, even possibly, rebellion during this time of transition. Frankly, parishioners who await the appointment of a new pastor probably find themselves similarly troubled until a new pastor arrives and takes charge. Even in the archdiocese, there is some unrest now as our Catholic people await the installation of our new archbishop on April 2nd.
But the secular press seems to delight in stirring things up during this time of transition. On the Monday after the Pope’s announcement, Portland’s daily newspaper had a story on the front page with the headline “Pope leaves church with a host of questions.” What followed was an article from a New York Times reporter in which we were informed that “Benedict XVI’s resignation raises issues around infallibility, authority and doctrine.” Then the article began with a few frivolous questions like “What will he be called? Will he keep his white robes and trademark red loafers?” I hope you were not unsettled by all those musings, but, if you were, let me put you at rest.
First of all, with respect to infallibility, if the reporter had simply consulted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 891, she would have learned that “the Roman Pontiff, head of the College of Bishops, enjoys this infallibility (in matters of faith and morals) in virtue of his office.” Since Pope Benedict will no longer hold the office of Supreme Pontiff, he will no longer exercise infallibility. This charism belongs exclusively to the church’s supreme pastor, the Pope. In other words, there will be no infallible teachings during sede vacante.
As far as authority is concerned, there are many “authorities” in the church and they will continue exercising their responsibility. During the sede vacante the College of Cardinals exercises limited authority in the service of the universal church. As Canon 335 of the Code of Canon Law states, “When the Roman See is vacant or entirely impeded, nothing is to be innovated in the governance of the universal church; however, special laws enacted for these circumstances are to be observed.” Special laws have been enacted and the cardinals will proceed in accordance with these directives previously promulgated by the Supreme Pontiff.
When it comes to doctrine, if references here are being made to the deposit of faith which all bishops are obliged to preserve and teach, there will be no change. The Creed will remain the Creed and the commandments of God and the church will remain commandments. With respect to matters of policy and practice, inevitably there are some changes whenever there is new leadership. But again, during a time of transition, church law makes it quite clear that no innovations are to be introduced.
Again and again people question the Pope’s motives for resigning the papacy. He was very clear when he stated, “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” Why is that so hard to believe? After all, the man is 85 years old. The demands of his office are incredibly exhausting. Rather than question his motives, I hope every good Catholic is able to admire the candor, humility and love of the church which has prompted this decision.
During these nearly eight years of his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI has been a teacher par excellence. He has issued three major encyclicals, the first on faith, the second on hope and the third on love. In that first encyclical he reminded us quite beautifully that since God has loved us first, love is less a “command” than a response to the gift of God’s love. In writing about hope Pope Benedict presented Jesus as the source of the hope our world desperately desires. So much has gone wrong in recent human history. It is the Lord Jesus himself who is the harbinger of hope. His third encyclical on love was a social encyclical, bringing together what some might consider polar opposites: spirituality and human progress. Pope Benedict reminded us that the demands of love have both personal and social dimensions. He went on to address the problem of global hunger, the rights of workers, the environment and the lack of respect for the right to life.
In spite of his age, our Holy Father continued to be a very public figure, traveling around the globe, visiting our own country back in 2008, gathering with young people at World Youth Day every two or three years, hosting synods, canonizations, conferences and other important ecclesial and societal gatherings in Rome. But if you ever attended a Mass or prayer service at which the Holy Father presided, you quickly recognized that he was indeed a man of prayer, and that he will continue to be. As he reminded us in submitting his resignation, he will continue to exercise this primary responsibility which he assumed in the service of God’s people when he became a priest, namely, prayer for the needs of the church and the world.
On the other hand, I do need to acknowledge that such resignations are rare, probably only ten, in the history of the papacy. In fact, only one other Pope did so freely, Pope Celestine V in 1294. Those who see the office of Supreme Pontiff as a position of power undoubtedly struggle with the Pope’s decision. People don’t give up power too easily. But those who recognize the papacy as primarily a ministry of service understand very well how difficult it can be to continue to be of service at the same level of competence and energy as is possible for a younger man. There will be no more rivalry between Pope Benedict XVI and his successor than there has been between Pope Benedict and his predecessor. The papacy is not a secular political office. It is a position of spiritual leadership, a gift from God to his church, one we treasure and therefore one we pray will be strong, effective and respected in the years to come.
Given the importance of the office of the Supreme Pontiff, Catholics the world over begin a time of special prayer for Pope Benedict XVI, for his health and well-being, and in thanksgiving for his service to the church. During this time of sede vacante we should also consider offering special Masses for the election of the Pope, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the cardinals as they assemble in conclave to choose the next successor to St. Peter. Yes, Sede Vacante is now upon us. How fitting it is during these Lenten days in a Year of Faith that we prepare for a new day in the life of the church.