When Pope Benedict was elected, Melancholicus was in the United States, studying for the priesthood with this society of apostolic life of pontifical right (although at the time he was locked in a vocational crisis that ultimately resolved itself through his departure from the seminary). Melancholicus and his classmates were in Dr. John Thornburgh’s Modern Philosophy class, a little over a month away from the end of our philosophical studies. He cannot recall which philosopher we were then discussing (perhaps Heidegger?), but pre-occupied with his interior struggle, Melancholicus was probably not paying much attention anyway.
Suddenly, the loud pealing of a hand-rung bell sounded up and down the corridor adjacent to the classrooms and, without waiting for the news, the whole community immediately knew that the successor of John Paul II had been chosen.
The class rose up as one man, and immediately left the room, joining the occupants of the other classrooms in a swift but stately march to the chapel. Nobody spoke. Everyone was either preoccupied with the ramifications of this momentous occasion, or engaged in silent prayer. As the community filed downstairs to the chapel, the only sounds were the swishing of soutanes and the deep rumble of boots on the stairs.
We took up our accustomed places in choir, and chanted the Te Deum. Then, as the Rector was nowhere in sight, a few enterprising souls left the chapel and made their way upstairs to the pumpkin room to find the TV. Gradually, more and more of the brethren left the chapel and adjourned in the pumpkin room, until half the community was crowded around the TV.
During the unbearably tense interval between the appearance of the white smoke and the introduction of the new pope to the waiting world, Melancholicus fretted anxiously, twisting the buttons on his soutane, and certain that one of only two alternatives would issue from this election. The Cardinals’ choice of pope would result either in the salvation of the Catholic Church by Christ, or in its destruction. Of course the latter alternative is impossible, since the indefectibility of the Church is divinely guaranteed until the end of time, but surveying the appalling carnage left behind by the council and by the policies of the conciliar popes — a devastation of the ecclesial order analogous to Hiroshima after the bomb — one could be forgiven for fearing that the worst was about to happen, and that the unsinkable would in fact finally sink.
And then there would really be nothing for it, but to become an Anglican!
After what seemed like an age, his eminence Jorge Arturo Cardinal Medina Estevez finally appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's basilica to announce to the world that the new successor of St. Peter had been chosen. Melancholicus was impatient of the multilingual introductory greetings, desiring only to know the identity of the new pontiff and thus the fate of the barque of Peter. When his eminence reached the pause after eminentissimum ac reverendissimum dominum, the tension in the pumpkin room was unendurable. Then came the pope-elect’s Christian name: Iosephum, followed by another horrendously tense pause. Melancholicus immediately thought of Joseph Ratzinger, but for all he knew to the contrary there could be two dozen other Iosephums in the sacred college. His eminence then continued slowly with sanctae Romanae ecclesiae cardinalem, whereat Melancholicus thought he would die. And then finally, that single most important word Ratzinger, at which the world changed in an instant. Like the terrified disciples in the storm on the Sea of Galilee, when the Lord stilled the wind and the waves, all became calm.
It is His church after all.
Deo gratias, alleluia. The conclave might have chosen a notorious dissident like Martini or Danneels, a confused ecumaniac like Kasper, a wilting conciliar yes-man like Murphy-O’Connor, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing like Tettamanzi, but thanks be to almighty God these nightmare scenarios were avoided. Such things hardly even bear thinking about. But in the end, the Holy Ghost gave to Christ’s Church a pope. A Catholic pope.
Flooded with sweet relief, we cheered and applauded, rising to our feet after the fashion of football fans whose team has just scored the winning goal in a match of crucial importance.
There’s nothing like the drama of a conclave.
And there is also this charming clip filmed by one of the faithful on that mementous day in St. Peter’s square:
There are those who will tell us that the recent ‘renewal’ of the Church in the spirit of the council has been a tremendously successful endeavour which has been of inestimable benefit to all Catholics.
Here is Cardinal Ratzinger’s assessment, however, of the true state of the Church in 2005, shortly before he was elected pope:
Should we not also think of how much Christ suffers in his own Church? How often is the holy sacrament of his Presence abused, how often must he enter empty and evil hearts! How often do we celebrate only ourselves, without even realizing that he is there! How often is his Word twisted and misused! What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words! How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!
Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. In your field we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again, after all our lofty words and grand gestures.
These words, a cry from the heart of one who can see the Church as she now is, give the lie direct to those who continue to insist, whether because of blindness or mendacity, and in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that we are now living through the glorious new springtime of the greatest renewal the Church has ever seen. Pope Benedict is the man for the hour for he recognises the nature and extent of the crisis into which the Church has been plunged by her flirtation with the secular world and her concomitant forgetfulness of the divine mission entrusted to her.
Melancholicus occasionally finds himself glancing ahead to the next pontificate. This is not something he likes to do, and for the good of the whole Church he wishes Papa Ratzi many more years of life and continued good health. However, the Holy Father is now 81 years old. There is no point guessing how much time he may have left, for the imminent demise of his predecessor was forecast annually for at least a decade before it actually occurred. It is likewise useless to speculate who the next pope shall be, but Melancholicus hopes that man shall be a Benedict XVII, naming himself in honour of his predecessor, and determined to bring to completion the restoring policies of Papa Ratzi.
Ad multos annos.