Thursday, February 28, 2013

Day 16: Buonanotte

At 1:59pm, tears started welling up.  I stood at the door of our chapel with my housekeeper and my DRE, all three of us looking intently on the video on my phone showing the silence that had fallen over Castel Gandolfo as the top of the hour approached.  Suddenly the Swiss Guard pulled back,  closed the doors to the Apostolic Palace, and ceased to stand guard.  The Pontificate of Benedict XVI had ended.  I looked into the chapel and saw that a supringingly large amount of people had congregated before the Blessed Sacrament to pray the rosary.  The church bells were rung, and a candle that had been lit by the picture of the now Pope-emeritus was extinguished.  I sat down to pray the rosary and teared up again.

I have always felt a close connection to this man.  Almost 20 years ago, on the day my parents dropped me off at seminary, my mother handed me a book called "Ministers of Your Joy."  I looked at the cover and didn't recognize the author.  It was written by a German cardinal I had never heard of named Joseph Ratzinger.  I read that book during my first two weeks in seminary and always kept it close by to remind me of the calling that I had received.  I remember nearly 8 years ago in my first assignment as a priest when I had rounded up the students of St. Agnes into the dining hall because white smoke had emerged from the Sistine Chapel.  We waited anxiously, as we will in the coming days, to see which of the cardinals had been elected.  I had with me a folder with biographies on all the cardinals to give the children an introduction to their new Pope.  But alas, I did not need my research.  I knew this man all too well.  I had read his books.  I had heard stories of this great man.  Cardinal Ratzinger was now Pope Benedict XVI!  Now the world would discover his genius.  And boy did we ever.  His first encyclical on love was a masterpiece.  His books on Jesus of Nazareth captivate even the most learned of biblical scholars.  His gentle voice guiding his sheep towards the Good Shepherd resonates in our hearts.  I had seen Blessed John Paul II when I was a kid when he visited us.  As a priest, I went to Rome two years ago to visit Benedict XVI.  I stood in the square for the Angelus and his General Audience, and I sat 20 yards from Bernini's altar and celebrated Mass with him under the great dome of St. Peter's Basilica.

Today's events underscored the humility of a man who loves his Church and his Lord so much that he chooses to live out his remaining years by serving it in a different way.  He did not quit.  He did not abandon us.  He now is probably closer than ever to us through prayer.  When he walked out unto the balcony of Castel Gandolfo for the last time, he had no prepared notes.  He joyfully greeted the crowd and said a simple farewell:

Dear friends, I'm happy to be with you, surrounded by the beauty of creation and your well-wishes which do me such good. Thank you for your friendship, and your affection. You know this day is different for me than the preceding ones: I am no longer the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, or I will be until 8 o'clock this evening and then no more.  I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth. But I would still ... thank you ... I would still with my heart, with my love, with my prayers, with my reflection, and with all my inner strength, like to work for the common good and the good of the church and of humanity. I feel very supported by your sympathy.  Let us go forward with the Lord for the good of the church and the world. Thank you, I now wholeheartedly impart my blessing. May Almighty God bless you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Good night! Thank you all!

No, thank you, Your Holiness!