AD MULTOS GLORIOSQUE ANNOS!!!
Seven years ago, I remember setting my alarm clock so that I could wake up early to watch a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel where the Cardinal Electors had just taken their second vote in the morning of April 19, 2005. (I had stayed up late the “night” before keeping vigil to see if anything happened after the first vote.) The results? Black smoke. No decision. Peter’s Chair remained empty.
I went back to bed only to wake up a few hours later for daily Mass. It had already been a couple of weeks since our beloved Bl. John Paul the Great had died, but I still hadn’t gotten used to hearing his name omitted in the Eucharistic Prayer (Lord, remember your Church throughout the world; make us grow in love, together with ________ our Pope, ___________ our bishop, and all the clergy.)
During his homily, the priest spoke of the solemn activity currently going on in the Sistine Chapel, beneath Michelangelo’s famous ceiling of the Creation of Man and before the stern warning of his Last Judgement. He urged us to invoke the Holy Spirit to pray for the Cardinals as they perform their sacred duty.
After Mass, I went back home. I was on chimney watch since the day before. I turned on the TV around 9:00am. Smoke was pouring out of the most watched exhaust pipe in the world. The smoke was dark grey, much like all the other times. Then, something happened. It got lighter very quickly. However, since the Roman sky was overcast, you couldn’t really tell the color. However, it was clearly not black.
clueless news casters were going on about the bells that were supposed to ring to accompany the white smoke. It was near 6:00pm Roman time, but the normal Angelus Bells and the tolling of hour had not occurred on their normal schedule. Then, as people still gazed up at the famous chimney. The large bell in the Piazza San Pietro began to move, at first very slowly, then with its first clang of metal against metal, the entire Piazza burst forth in cheers, and their cheering was soon joined by the smaller bells in the tower.
Those bells who just weeks earlier mournfully announced the death of John Paul the Great, now pealed with thunderous joy, echoing the jubilant cries from Catholics all over the world: HABEMUS PAPAM! WE HAVE A POPE!
I was ecstatic! I began to scream in my empty house and call my friends to share with them this happy news. (Everyone I called was either in class or at work, so I remember leaving excited, semi-coherent messages on their voice mail—hopefully, they have long since been erased.)
As the Piazza and the Via della Conciliazione began to fill with people, I remained glued to the TV despite the fact that by this time I was late for work; I knew this was a historic moment, and I wanted to be a part of it as it happened.
After some time, the papal arms of Bl. John Paul the Great were lowered from that iconic middle balcony in the facade of St. Peter’s, the curtain was lowered, and soon the crucifix emerged followed by His Eminence, Cardinal Protodeacon Jorge Arturo Augustin Medina Estévez.
One thing that I think we Catholics know how to do exceptionally well is to mark special occasions with just the right amount of theatrics (the Brits learned it from us when England was Catholic). Of course, this isn’t drama for drama’s own sake or for any entertainment value, but, much like the rituals in our liturgies, choreographed movement and intentional use of signs help to communicate something of what is taking place.
After Cardinal Medina Estévez spoke a greeting in various languages (which caught me and the news translators off guard), he announced to us a great joy—gaudium magnum—that we were no longer sedevacantists for a new pope had been chosen to sit on Peter’s throne and shepherd the flock of Christ on earth. He was the first to introduce us to our new Holy Father, the gentle and intellectually brilliant Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As the crowds waited to greet their Papa, they called out to him by his new name: Benedict XVI.
His election honestly caught me by surprise, for I did not expect him to be elected since I had seen an earlier interview with him where he said that he hoped to retire soon, despite the fact that each time he submitted his resignation to Pope John Paul II (as is required of all bishops once they reach a certain age), JP the Great refused to accept it. In the interview, I recalled Cardinal Ratzinger saying (I’m paraphrasing), “If the pope needs me, how can I say I wish to retire and write books?” That was his intention, but it wasn’t that of God or his brother cardinals.
Personally, I had expected it to be Cardinal Rivera Carrera, the Primate of Mexico, or Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria who at the time was the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
In 2005, I was one of the coordinators of my parish’s youth ministry. At a recent meeting, I taught the kids how a pope is elected, and we even had our own mock election (including skewering each ballot after it had been read aloud) . I assigned roles to the kids who played prominent cardinals and explained the various factors one might consider in casting his vote.
Guess who the kids (playing Princes of the Church) voted for? They picked Cardinal Ratzinger!
Yes, I was surprised when Cardinal Medina Estévez said, “…Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Ratzinger,” but I was delighted because I had complete confidence that Barque of Peter had a wise and experienced captain who would steer her safely through the storms that would come.
However, not everyone shared this joy. First, there were the ones who viewed our new Papa as some sort of German tank (Panzerkardinal), a doctrinal Nazi who was a former (unwilling) member of Hitler Youth, a strict disciplinarian who ate heretics for lunch with a side of sauerkraut. In their eyes, his election constituted a step back for the Church after the progress of Vatican II (ah, how quickly they forgot that, unlike most of his detractors, Joseph Ratzinger actively participated in the Second Vatican Council as a theological consultant to Cardinal Frings).
Then there were those who sort of dismissed his papacy almost from its conception by classifying Pope Benedict as a “transitional pope” (remember that?). He was merely a place holder, someone to keep the Chair warm, a buffer pope who would hold course until a new man could be groomed and elected who would lead the Church in the post-JP2 era. Please. The Cardinal Electors could have chosen anyone; if they truly wanted a transitional pope, I doubt they would have elected God’s
Rottweiler German Shepherd.
Well, the time soon came when we had our first face to face encounter with our new Holy Father. I admit that it was a little strange seeing him in the papal white; it was like he was wearing John Paul II’s clothes. But he had my loyalty and filial love the moment I saw him on that balcony, a sight I will never forget.
On that day, seven years ago, the shy theologian, in shock and still getting used to the cheering crowds, spoke these words heard around the world:
“Dear Brothers and Sisters,
After the great Pope John Paul II, the Cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord.
The fact that the Lord knows how to work and to act even with inadequate instruments comforts me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers.
Let us move forward in the joy of the Risen Lord, confident of his unfailing help. The Lord will help us and Mary, his Most Holy Mother, will be on our side. Thank you.”
Happy anniversary, Papa! May your reign be long and glorious!