Last week I wrote about how Lent begins a new year. Well, on Monday our Holy Father began a new era. In announcing his resignation from the See of Peter, he changed the church in ways we will not understand for decades.
What he did will change the expectations everyone has of every future Pope, including the expectations of the Pope himself. He is introducing a new possibility, or at least invigorating one long thought impracticable, to the governance of the Church at its summit. The effect of that possibility will only be known over succeeding generations.
That being acknowledged, what is happening in the Church now is not so dramatic as some commentators would have you think.
Choosing to end his reign as Pontiff because his own weakness makes him believe it is impossible for him to fulfill the obligations of the office has the same end result as would his death: the Chair of Peter will be vacant. There is sadness at losing someone we love in a relationship on which we depend, but it is less intense than would be the grief at his death.
Though the cause – resignation – is different, the result is much the same. Once the Chair is vacated on 28 February, the responsible members of the Church’s leadership will swing into action with their carefully assigned roles. The Camerlengo, or Chamberlain, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, will seal the papal chambers and convene the General Assemblies. These daily congresses of all the Cardinals will serve two important functions. First, they govern the daily functioning of the Church in the absence of a Pope, though they are not able to take actions that are reserved to the Pontiff; and they provide a forum wherein the Cardinals will give their observations of what needs to be considered in this time of transition, in short speeches called interventions. Each Cardinal who participates may give one.
Then the Dean of College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, will announce the date when the Conclave will convene to select a successor. Only Cardinals under the age of 80 at the time the Chair is vacated will be eligible; there will be 117. They will be sequestered in complete secrecy to discern who is the next Pontiff, almost certainly someone in their midst.
This is an ingenious process wherein all the voters, all the group leaders and opinion makers, any also-rans, and all the indispensible future coworkers, are all doing their discussing, discerning, and voting in the presence of one another -- and the next Pope. It is a delicate, deliberate process, marked by much prayer, but one that bears marvelous fruit. It leads to the “supermajority” of two-thirds of the body, plus one, that identifies the new Pope.
Whenever we need someone new to be Peter, this is just what we do. Of course, the media natterers are competing to generate the most over-the-top explanations that sensationalize it, in hope of...well, whatever they hope for: audience share, shots at the Church and her credibility, advantages for their particular agenda. The usual. They can't be bothered to admit that in the main, the whole thing is actually, well, pretty normal – for the Church.
The real story holds no appeal for them: that we go through this every so often, we have a process to respond to and resolve the challenge, and all things work for the good of those who love God (Rom 8:28). That is precisely why it is fascinating and instructive! The day-to-day life of the Body of Christ is shockingly mundane, until you get to the part about rising from the dead. That’s the part for which you and I are in it, and that’s what we can count on, from our Lord, and His Church, and His Vicar on earth, now, and in the new era to come.