The End of an Era

All of our readers were delightfully astonished by the wonderful impression made a few months ago by Pope Benedict XVI on the American people and, especially, on that green-eyed monster, the American secular media. The Pope took them by storm, and his visits to Washington and New York were successes in every way.

Those visits also produced a marvelous historical moment -- one of considerable importance to those who cherish the papacy. It is unfortunate that this historical moment might actually be missed by most people. The Pope's visit to the United States marked the end of what one might call the ''Imperial Papacy.'' This old tradition finally ended when Pope Benedict XVI encountered 25,000 cheering young people, including children, teenagers and very young adults at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers. Let me tell you about it. I was there, having taught at this excellent seminary for over 40 years.

During the medieval period, the popes had to compete in prestige with secular rulers -- emperors and kings. None of us really has an appreciation of what these offices meant to the people of those times. To us, kings and queens are little more than tourist attractions or, at best, helpful reminders of the past. Until the 19th century, however, kings and queens exerted an almost supernatural presence. It was believed that they had been chosen and appointed by the providence of God and that they ruled with His authority. Catholics believed that the popes ruled over the Church by divine right, and without any question the popes adopted the insignias and trappings of royalty. Most of the readers of this article are familiar with the pope using the sedia gestatoria or portable throne. We Catholics identified the papacy with the tiara, which is a triple king's crown. One of the other papal accoutrements was the ostrich plume fans that stood behind Pope Pius XII (The only reason I ever wanted to be pope was to get rid of those things!) Gradually, from the time of Pope John XXIII, however, there has been a steady divesting of these symbols of royalty by the popes.

Among the very last vestiges of royal presence retained by the pope was the fact that you did not touch him personally. Instead, you genuflected and kissed his hand when you met him. The first break in this came when Pope John Paul II walked arm in arm with the President of the United States. It may seem like a small thing, but before that moment no pope had ever done that.

Well, there at St. Joseph's Seminary I witnessed the final end of the ''Imperial Papacy.'' It came when a young girl of grammar school age, who was assigned to make the first presentation to Pope Benedict, came up and threw her arms around him. Smiling, the Pope embraced her in return. This started a trend, and I watched as person after person embraced the Pope. Prior to this, the only time I had ever seen a pope kissed was in the ceremonial kiss given by cardinals after they received their red hats.

One might lament the passing of these royal signs if they had not been replaced by something far more important and pastoral. Benedict XVI was received with the greatest enthusiasm. The same enthusiasm is seen regularly at papal audiences in St. Peter's Square. Forget the imperial dignity. The Pope is no longer the Emperor of Religion, as he is called in Chinese. He is now emerging as the unique father of the faithful, and -- as we saw in his meetings with non-Catholics and non-Christians -- the moral leader of most of the religious world. This is what he is supposed to be. One newspaper even pointed out: ''There is all this enthusiasm because in the whole world there is only one pope.'' He is becoming a father figure to much of the world, and -- as we saw on that great day at St. Joseph's Seminary -- for much of the younger world he is very successfully becoming a grandfather figure, as well. Long live the Pope! TP