When my son, Harry, was six years old, his CCD teacher asked her students what they wanted to be when they grew up. One by one, all the students announced to the class what their desires were for the future. When it was Harry’s turn, he said, “I want to go to pope school and become the pope.” One thing that can be said about Harry is that he has always had ambition.
Prior to his marriage in 2010, Harry would have been eligible to become pope. Technically speaking, any baptized Catholic male who is not married is eligible. Traditionally, however, it has been a cardinal who has been chosen to lead the Catholic Church.
I thought about Harry’s desire to become the pope last Monday (February 11) when I read about Pope Benedict’s announcement that he was going to resign. After making his announcement at a meeting of Vatican cardinals, Pope Benedict said:
… in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary – strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
In my opinion, the key phrase in Pope Benedict’s statement was “in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes.” There was a time, not very long ago, when the church could run on auto pilot after an elderly, infirm pope had lost the mental capacity to govern. If it took a pope three or four years to die after becoming incapacitated, it was no big deal, because there were capable individuals in place to make important day-to-day decisions.
Speaking of rapid changes, within the past two years we’ve seen revolutions in Libya and Egypt result in the fall of the Libyan and Egyptian governments, which were replaced by Islamic fundamentalists who are now systematically persecuting and murdering Christians. The rapid success of the revolutions in both of those countries would have been impossible 10 or more years ago. The ability of the leaders to use Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to instantly communicate with tens of thousands of people at one time allowed them to organize and launch massive demonstrations before the local police were even aware of what was going on.
Last week we learned that North Korea successfully tested a nuclear weapon and is now threatening the United States and causing alarm in China and Japan. The Syrian government is about to collapse, and Iran is on the verge of going nuclear. As a result of all this chaos, the stability of the entire world is in jeopardy. While we in America worry about the inappropriate use of guns by criminals and mentally ill individuals, there are lunatics who hate the United States and would like nothing more than to smuggle nuclear weapons into our country and vaporize millions of Americans.
In addition to the physical threats outlined above, there has been an unprecedented deterioration in the moral fabric of the civilized societies throughout the world. Forty years ago the most damaging trends included the increased acceptance of divorce, contraception, and abortion. Now, in addition to the continuation of those trends, new “rights” are being established at blinding speed for homosexual “marriage,” assisted suicide, and euthanasia. And coming up right around the corner is the technology and know-how to clone humans.
On Friday (February 15), I talked with a bishop whom I’ve known for over 25 years (not Bishop Jenky). When I asked him what he thought about the pope’s announcement, he said:
The pope should have resigned four or five years ago. He’s had heart problems for years and he’s completely worn out. He’s no longer up to the job. There’s a reason why the church imposes a mandatory retirement age of 75 for all bishops. It’s because at that age most of them no longer have the energy, stamina, or mental capability to provide the leadership that’s expected of them. Pope Benedict is 86 years old. Would you hire an 86-year-old lawyer to work for you? I’m 62, and I’m tired and worn out. I think there should be a mandatory retirement age of 80 for the pope.
Pope Benedict showed great humility and courage in admitting that he was no longer capable of handling the job of Vicar of Christ on Earth. He also showed a deep concern for all humanity when he admitted that someone else would be better equipped than he is to deal with a world that is “shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.”
Between 15 and 20 days after the pope’s final day in office, which will be February 28, a papal conclave (meeting) will be assembled to vote on who our next pope will be. The conclave will consist of no more than 120 cardinals, all of whom must be under the age of 80 to vote. After the conclave is assembled, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the following process takes place:
The cardinals now reside in the Domus Sanctae Marthae (“St. Martha’s House”), a hotel-like building constructed for visiting clergy during the reign of John Paul II. The area of the conclave is completely sealed off for the duration of the gathering; only the cardinals and their secretaries, the masters of ceremonies, certain other ecclesiastics with specific duties related to the election, doctors, and the service staff may enter. Additionally, the cardinals are denied access to all news media and are strictly forbidden to use telephones.
The cardinals’ vote by secret ballot in the Sistine Chapel (also a part of the Vatican palace) until a candidate is selected. One ballot is held on the first day of the conclave and four on each subsequent day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. Immediately after the count, the ballots and all related notes are burned in a stove in the chapel, and the color of the smoke passing from a pipe through the roof enables the crowd assembled in St. Peter’s Square to know how the voting has gone: when no candidate receives the required majority (more than two thirds of the vote), the smoke is black; if a new pope has been elected, the smoke is white. Wet and dry straw were originally mixed with the ballots to produce the black or white smoke, but today chemicals are used to ensure the right color. Still, even with the additives and depending on weather conditions, the smoke’s color can be difficult to discern. One of the most notorious examples of this difficulty, occurring after the election of John Paul II in 1978, inspired a further reform in the process: in 2005 the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica were rung to confirm for the first time that the smoke was white and that a new pope had been elected.
When one person has received the required majority, the dean of the cardinals formally asks him whether he accepts his election and what name he wishes to assume. Upon his acceptance, the news is announced to the assembled populace; the senior cardinal deacon appears on the central balcony in the facade of St. Peter’s and declares “Habemus papam” (“We have a pope”). Soon afterward, the new pope, wearing pontifical robes, appears at the same balcony and gives his first blessing as pope to the crowd.
We need to pray that the cardinals will choose a pope who has the humility, courage, intelligence, experience, wisdom, and grace that is needed to steer all Christians through the treacherous waters that lie ahead.