You may have seen, as I have, the footage of Benedict XVI, now pope emeritus, departing the Vatican on Feb. 28. There was live television news coverage of his final audiences, his farewell to the cardinals, his helicopter lifting off from the Vatican heliport and then landing at Castel Gandolfo, and his brief address on the balcony of the residence there.
With breathtaking humility, this man of such erudition and talent said simply, “I’m no longer the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church or I will be until 8 o’clock this evening and then no longer. I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last part of his journey on earth.” And then, at the stroke of 8 p.m., we saw the Swiss Guards depart and the doors of the residence close. After that moment, the Chair of St. Peter stood vacant.
‘UPON THIS ROCK’
As Benedict XVI took his leave, there was one particularly touching scene that struck me: The driver who would take the pope to the heliport was crying as he greeted Benedict and kissed his ring. Along with our gratitude and prayers for Benedict XVI’s loving service to the Church, there is also a mixture of sorrow.
Although I had the privilege of seeing and even meeting with the pope emeritus, those were relatively rare occasions. Most of the time, I was separated from the Holy Father by six time zones and thousands of miles. Yet as Benedict XVI departed, I experienced a sense of aloneness. This prompted me to reflect on the importance of the ministry of the Successor of Peter in my life as a bishop and in the life of every Catholic.
Although most Catholics never have the opportunity to see the pope in person, he is still an exemplary model for the practice of our faith. After all, it was Christ who declared Peter the rock on which the Church is built (cf. Mt 16:18). And it was Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who boldly recognized Jesus’ identity and declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16).
For more than two millennia, Peter has continued to speak the truth about Jesus to the whole world through his successors. Every time a priest preaches a homily or offers instruction in the faith, and every time parents teach the faith to their children or a catechist forms adults or children in the faith, they are standing secure on Peter’s confession of faith.
Jesus gave the keys of the Church to Peter, making him shepherd of the whole flock. He entrusted to Peter as leader of the Apostles the power of “binding and loosing” the power to govern the Church and to forgive sins (cf. Mt 16:19). This power has been transmitted to Peter’s successors, the popes, and to the successors of the Apostles, the bishops. As I go about my own ministry as a bishop teaching the faith, celebrating Mass and the sacraments, and guiding in truth and love the archdiocese entrusted to my pastoral care I do so in union with the Holy Father.
UNITED IN CHRIST
As Peter’s successor, the pope “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and the whole company of the faithful” (Lumen Gentium, 23; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 882). We look to the Holy Father’s leadership to maintain that unity of faith so essential for the preaching of the Gospel. As universal pastor with authority over the whole Church, the pope confirms and strengthens my ministry as a bishop.
Standing with Peter, I am called to be the “visible source and foundation of unity” in my archdiocese. Standing with Peter, bishops everywhere are united and able to strengthen each other in ministering to the Church throughout the world. Standing with Peter, every Catholic has a sense of the importance of his or her baptismal call to embrace a vocation to love and to be a witness to Christ in our contemporary world.
A dramatic expression of the unity between pope and the college of bishops took place 50 years ago when Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council. And we see this unity every time bishops journey to Rome to meet together, such as during the recent Synod of Bishops dedicated to the promotion of the new evangelization.
We also express our unity as a Church during the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass, during which we always pray for the pope and the local bishop. In times of transition, the absence of these prayers should prompt us to pray even harder for worthy successors to lead and guide the Church.
The news of the pope’s resignation and the process of electing a successor inevitably put the Church very much in the public spotlight. Since that spotlight often focuses on the challenges and problems that the Church faces, we may be discouraged by some of what we see in the media coverage. But through it all, it is important for us to keep our eyes fixed on Christ, the Good Shepherd, who never leaves his flock untended.
As the new pontiff, Pope Francis, begins his Petrine ministry, we pray especially for his holy witness, because it is holiness that opens for us the source of the Church’s life and vitality: Jesus Christ and the power of his death and resurrection. May the Holy Spirit guide and bless our beloved Church in the days ahead.