Pope Benedict’s telling of ‘axe’ falling on him in conclave

“I apologize for being late,” the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI told a group of pilgrims from his homeland, as he came in from his first official meeting as pope with other international religious representatives. “Germans are known for their punctuality, and this is a sign that I have become quite Italianized.” 

From his first moments, Pope Benedict has been a regular provider of surprises. He turns 85 on April 16, and three days later, he celebrates the seventh anniversary of his papal election. He’s now older than Pope John Paul II was when he died, and he’s taken to using a cane and a rolling pedestal to traverse the vast aisle in St. Peter’s Basilica, but he’s hardly taking it easy. His six-day trip to Mexico and Cuba in March is proof of that. 

Ahead of his election anniversary, I went back and reread what he said in those first few weeks after the conclave in his various gatherings with Church leaders, laity and even secular journalists. I wanted to see if anything he said carries additional meaning now, after half a dozen years. 

I was most struck by the audience I mentioned above with German pilgrims, which took place on April 25, 2005, less than a week after the election. Maybe because of their shared nationality, his remarks were remarkably personal. Here are some key excerpts: 

When, little by little, the trend of the voting led me to understand that, to say it simply, the axe was going to fall on me, my head began to spin. I was convinced that I had already carried out my life’s work and could look forward to ending my days peacefully. With profound conviction I said to the Lord: Do not do this to me! You have younger and better people at your disposal, who can face this great responsibility with greater dynamism and greater strength. 

I was then very touched by a brief note written to me by a brother cardinal. He reminded me that on the occasion of the Mass for John Paul II, I had based my homily, starting from the Gospel, on the Lord’s words to Peter by the Lake of Gennesaret: “Follow me!” I spoke of how again and again, Karol Wojtyła received this call from the Lord, and how each time he had to renounce much and to simply say: Yes, I will follow you, even if you lead me where I never wanted to go. 

This brother cardinal wrote to me: Were the Lord to say to you now, “Follow me,” then remember what you preached. Do not refuse! Be obedient in the same way that you described the great pope, who has returned to the house of the Father. This deeply moved me. The ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness. ... 

When [Christ] speaks of the cross that we ourselves have to carry, it has nothing to do with a taste for torture or of pedantic moralism. It is the impulse of love, which has its own momentum and does not seek itself but opens the person to the service of truth, justice and the good. 

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