For my entire career in the Catholic press, I had known only one pope, Pope John Paul II. So I had told myself that if I were able to, I would go to Rome to report on what might have been my only conclave as a Catholic journalist. In 2005, I passed up the chance to be at the funeral of Pope John Paul II, despite the impact he had made on my life, because I wanted to cover the conclave.
I have many memories of that experience, but a few stand out. The first was the “Mass of the isms,” the famous last Mass before the cardinals went into the conclave. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then-dean of the College of Cardinals, preached the homily, and warned against the threats to society such as relativism and secularism. What I most remember from that Mass, however, was the look of Cardinal Ratzinger as he brought up the rear of the long procession out of St. Peter’s. While many of the cardinals were smiling or taking in their surroundings, Cardinal Ratzinger looked as if the world were already resting on his shoulders. His gaze was both down and far, far away.
I felt as if he knew already that he would never retire to Bavaria, never retreat to his library and his piano unencumbered by the cares of the universal Church.
One day later, I saw him as the newly elected pontiff, standing in the balcony of St. Peter’s and blessing the world with his soft, lilting voice. The massive television screens captured the look of a private man who now knew this endless throng of cheering people was his new and inescapable reality.
The next day, we got our first look at the pope of the red shoes. After so many years of seeing the infirm Pope John Paul, it was almost dizzying to see the pope move quickly about the stage of the Paul VI Hall as he greeted the world’s journalists.
I have on my office wall to this day a picture of him bounding up some steps in the Vatican that first day, for I was so struck by the image of papal motion.
Almost eight years later, we now have received the sad news that Pope Benedict — slowed by age’s toll and the burden of carrying the cares of the Church on his shoulders for all those years — is stepping down.
I find his act courageous, for it takes a brave man to walk away from what I’m sure another part of him says is his duty. So many questions: What will we call him after Feb. 28? What will he do? Will he write, as he has done so magnificently these past years? Or will he hide from our gaze, free at last even if only within the confining walls of the Vatican?
This is uncharted territory for Pope Benedict, and uncharted territory for us. Yet all we can do is thank him for what he was able to do so well, and forgive him for what he could not do.
Go with God, Holy Father. May God grant you peace in your remaining years.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.