Nearly eight years ago, I sat in front of the television transfixed as the death of Pope John Paul II triggered the ancient rituals and majestic traditions of a Papal funeral, followed by the first Papal Conclave to elect a new Pope to take place in my lifetime. I read every bit of information about the process of the College of Cardinals as they were sequestered in the Sistine Chapel to cast their ballots for the 265th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, the successor to not only John Paul II, but to St. Peter. I eagerly anticipated the signal that a new Pope had been elected -- white smoke spewing from a chimney in the Sistine Chapel rather than black smoke indicating that more ballots were required. When that white smoke and the ringing of bells told us that a new Pope had been elected and the words "Habemus Papam" ("We have a Pope!") were announced, I was on the edge of my seat to see who emerged on the balcony at the Vatican -- to see, for the very first time, a new, unfamiliar face in the oh-so-familiar Papal vestments and to learn the regnal name chosen by the new Pontiff.
From the moment Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, through the "novemdiales", the nine days of mourning of the deceased Pope as we watched hundreds of thousands of pilgrims file past his body lying in state inside St. Peter's Basilica, through John Paul II's funeral -- possibly the largest funeral in the history of the world -- and burial in the Vatican Grottoes, and up until April 19, 2005, when German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the Papacy and became Pope Benedict XVI, I remained fascinated by what I was watching and reading. And I'm not even Catholic. In fact, I'm not religious at all -- I'm an atheist. But I'm also a major history buff and I recognized the death of a Pope and the election of a new Pontiff to be a rare and historic event.
Now, with the Holy See -- the seat of St. Peter -- vacant once again, we're in the midst of something far more historic and much more rare. On February 28th, Pope Benedict XVI's Papacy came to an end, but it did so at his own choosing. We watched John Paul II as he was literally dying at his post and the frail, ailing, 85-year-old Benedict XVI made the remarkable decision to resign the Papacy due to a "lack of strength of mind and body". Few Vatican insiders were closer to John Paul II as his health deteriorated during the last few years of his Pontificate than his ultimate successor, Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, and with the Catholic Church at a crossroads, rocked by scandals and crises, Benedict XVI decided that he could no longer provide the leadership that the Vatican needs. While many saw the deteriorating health of John Paul II as a form of suffering in the name of faith, Benedict XVI's resignation might be seen as a type of humility in the name of faith.
While the death of a Pope is a relatively rare event, the resignation of a Pope is almost unheard of. Benedict XVI's resignation is the first Papal resignation since Pope Gregory XII was forced to resign in 1415 to end the Church's Western Schism. We have to go back even further -- 719 years -- to find another Pontiff who voluntarily resigned the Papacy. In 1294, Pope Saint Celestine V, a simple monk prior to his election as Pope, was hopeless in attempting to lead the Church through the messy politics of the medieval Papacy and the constantly shifting temporal alliances of Europe. After just over five months as Pope, Celestine V resigned with a statement not too dissimilar from the resignation announcement of Benedict XVI 719 years later. Hoping to return to a the austere monk's life that he came from, Celestine V announced that he was renouncing his claim to the chair of St. Peter due to "The desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life." While Celestine V hoped to return to a quiet life in a monastery, his successor, Pope Boniface VIII feared that Celestine V might try to reclaim the Papacy. Boniface VIII ended up tossing Celestine V in prison, where he died less than two years after his resignation.
Pope Benedict XVI also hopes to spend the rest of his life in an austere retirement of prayer and reflection. Fortunately for Benedict XVI, who will continue to be known by his regnal name, be addressed as "His Holiness", wear the traditional white cassock, and hold the official title of Pope Emeritus, his successor won't have any reason to toss him in prison. Benedict XVI will turn 86 in April and his health has been failing. A Papal visit in 2012 to Mexico and Cuba seemed to significantly tax his energies and in the months before his resignation, his vision was deteriorating (with some reports claiming he was blind in one eye), he was having difficulty walking, and he appeared to be losing a noticeable amount of weight. In the last two weeks of his Pontificate, as Benedict XVI made his final public appearances, he was visibly fatigued, but seemed energized by the crowds that turned out in St. Peter's Square to bid him farewell on the last day of his Papacy.
On February 28th, thousands of Catholics packed that historic plaza in the shadow of St Peter's Basilica as a white helicopter lifted off in the early afternoon to transport Benedict XVI to the summer residence of the Popes, Castel Gandolfo on the shores of Italy's Lake Albano. There, Benedict XVI made his final public appearance as Pope. As the College of Cardinals gathers in Conclave to elect Benedict XVI's successor, the Pope Emeritus will remain at Castel Gandolfo. A former monastery in the Vatican Gardens, Mater Ecclesiae, within the walls of Vatican City is being prepared for Benedict XVI to live for the remainder of his life. The plan is for the Pope Emeritus to remain cloistered in the monastery where he will devote his time to prayer and writing. Benedict XVI won't be lonely. He'll have a household staff at his service and the Vatican Gendarmerie providing security (the Papal bodyguard, the Swiss Guards in their colorful uniforms designed by Michelangelo, stopped providing security to Benedict XVI at exactly 8:00 PM on February 28th when his Papacy officially came to an end). The Pope Emeritus will also have his beloved cats, the piano he enjoys playing for relaxation, and his personal library of over 20,000 books which were moved (and organized to his specifications) from his residence when he was Dean of the College of Cardinals to the Papal Apartments upon his election and will follow him to Mater Ecclesiae. Benedict XVI noted that the new Pope will have his full support and devotion and, many Vatican insiders have said that the public will likely never see Benedict XVI again.
Benedict XVI's resignation, departure, and retirement as Pope Emeritus is just one half of this incredibly rare and historic event. Now, the Holy See is "sede vacante" -- the Chair of St. Peter is vacant -- and the College of Cardinals is gathering in Rome to prepare for the Papal Conclave. Any adult male who has been baptized as a Catholic is eligible to be elected Pope, but it's almost a certainty that the next Pope will be one of the Cardinals sequestered inside the Sistine Chapel during the Conclave. The last time a non-Cardinal was elected Pope was 635 years ago. Any Cardinal under the age of 80 is eligible to cast a ballot for the next Pope, and the Conclave should begin in just a matter of days.
What will be most interesting to see in this 2013 Conclave (although we won't actually "see" it since the proceedings are secret and behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel) is the fact that the mood will be different. For centuries, the College of Cardinals have met to elect a new Pope in the wake of another Pope's death. So, when a Conclave takes place, it usually happens under somber conditions. This Conclave is taking place with the last Pope happily retired. There is no dead Pope to mourn. There are no nine days of grief. There is always politicking of some sort in the Conclave. Cardinals say that the politicking takes place over breakfast and dinner, not in the Sistine Chapel during balloting. Will the politicking be more conspicuous in this Conclave since the Cardinals aren't meeting after solemnly burying a Holy Father? Openly campaigning for the Papacy in the wake of a Pope's death might be in bad taste or bad Conclave politics, but campaigning in this situation might lead to a more drawn-out battle for the Papacy. Benedict XVI was elected in 2005 on the second day of the Conclave after just four ballots. With a wide-open field of papabili -- leading contenders for the Papacy -- in the 2013 Conclave, I don't think the white smoke will be rising from the Sistine Chapel to signal a new Pope as quickly as it did in 2005.
If you are a history buff, you should pay attention over the next couple of weeks. Papal elections are rare enough and we just witnessed the first Papal resignation in almost 600 years. Since Pope Benedict XVI left St. Peter's Square and flew into retirement on February 28th, ancient rituals steeped in tradition have been taking place throughout the Vatican. The Papal Apartments have been sealed until a new Pope is elected. Benedict XVI's Fisherman's ring has been removed and destroyed. The Cardinals are gathering in Rome to prepare for the rituals leading up to and occuring within the Conclave. Soon, the thousands of people in St. Peter's Square will stare at the little chimney above the Sistine Chapel. As ballots are cast, they will see smoke pouring out and squint to see if it it black or white. That smoke will tease the crowds for several ballots. Often, it appears to be white before the chemicals used to make the smoke while burning the ballots turn the correct color -- gray and then black. The crowd will oooh and aaah and sigh until that smoke is undeniably white. Then they will cheer. The bells will ring. And in the noise and celebration, there will be anticipation as the balcony hundreds of feet above the square is prepared for the declaration, "Habemus Papam!", and the introduction of who it will be.
No matter what, that moment will be historic. A new Pope. The name that he chose to identify himself as. But what if these historic few weeks -- with a rare Papal resignation -- becomes even more shocking and surprising? When the new Pope is introduced, there's a good possibility that he will be the first non-European Pope elected in nearly 1300 years (since the Syrian Pope St. Gregory III's election in 731). There was history with the Polish Pope John Paul II's election -- the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years -- and he was followed by the first German Pope elected in 948 years. With the Catholic Church receding in Europe and exploding in developing areas of the world, could there be a Pope from the Western Hemisphere? A Canadian Pope? An American Pope? The Catholic Church can change the face of its leadership and make a break from the white-haired, white-skinned male priests that many people around the world see as dominating the Church. A Pope from South America or Mexico or Cuba could carry the Church deeper into Latin America. In the Philippines, a charismatic version of the Catholic Church remains popular despite the encroachment of Islam. Three North African Popes of Berber descent served as Pope in the earliest years of the Papacy, but they were Caucasian. With all the history being made this month, could it be time for a Pope from sub-Saharan Africa? A black Pope?
It's not impossible, and that's why this is a fascinating time. The Papacy is wide-open and we could be on the verge of something incredible happening that truly changes the world, especially if the curtains to that Papal balcony are parted once the Cardinals make their choice and the 266th Pope, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God steps out in front of the thousands of cheering pilgrims in St. Peter's Square and we see that he has black skin or brown skin and was born in the Western or Southern Hemisphere.