“Sede Vacante.” Literally it means, “the chair is vacant,” and it means the Chair of St. Peter is empty: we have no Pope.
Now His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus, (his official title) is just another retired bishop, who will live out his remaining years in quiet prayer in a monastery in Vatican City, and the Church waits for a new chief shepherd.
Of course, Christ is our true and ultimate shepherd, and He is always with us, as He promised, “I will be with you always, even until the end of time.” Even so, a central part of His 3 year earthly ministry was to prepare His apostles so that they could carry on in His name as shepherds of His flock on earth when He had ascended to heaven.
And first among those apostles was St. Peter, to whom He gave the duty of representing Him as the chief shepherd of the flock, to “feed my lambs,…tend my sheep,…feed my sheep.” And to that end He made an incredible promise: “You are Peter [which means “rock”], and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:17-19).
Roughly 33 years later, around the year 66AD, St. Peter was in Rome when a fire broke out and raged through city. To deflect the blame from himself the Emperor Nero accused the strange new religious cult—the “Christians”—of starting the fire and began to arrest and execute their leaders. Somehow St. Peter managed to escape from Rome into the countryside. But as he fled down the Appian Way he came face to face with the Lord Jesus walking in the other direction. Peter froze in his steps and asked, “Quo vadis, Domine?”—“Where are you going, Lord?” And Jesus responded: “Eo Romam iterum crucifigi”—“I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” So Peter turned around and went back to Rome to be crucified on Vatican Hill.
Quo Vadis Domine? The Chair of Peter is empty, and the Church asks the Lord, “Where are You going Lord?” Where will You take us now? Who will you send to replace the brave and bold St. Peter, the brilliant Benedict, to hold the keys to the kingdom, to bind and loose in your Holy Name?
Even now the Lord knows the name of that man, most probably one of 115 cardinals who will go into the conclave to elect the new pope. Of course it’s natural that we would wonder who it will be, and rumors abound. Will it be Cardinal Scola, Archbishop of Milan, or the Canadian Cardinal Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, both “disciples” of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI? Or perhaps an African, Cardinal Turkson from Ghana, now president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace? Or a South American, perhaps Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga from Honduras, or Cardinal Scherer of Brazil? Or an American—Cardinal Dolan? Or a Vatican insider like Cardinal Sandri or Cardinal Ravasi. Or perhaps one of the “dark horses,” like Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines, Cardinal Ranjith of Sri Lanka, or Cardinal Erdő of Hungary. Or someone else? Who knows? Quo vadis Domine?
Scandals. As a prelude to the papal election rumors and allegations of scandals in the Vatican and the Church have been bouncing around the media. Some may be well founded, some may be typical media frenzy, some may be standard anti-Catholic bias, and some may even be an effort to influence the election. In any case, we remember that priests, bishops and even cardinals are mere men, subject to all the weaknesses and temptations all of us are. Many of the cardinals in conclave are saintly and devout priests, but perhaps some…not so much.
Should this cause us concern? Yes, as far as we want every bishop and priest to be holy men. But on a more circumspect basis, we should neither be surprised nor overly concerned. Remember, one of the first twelve apostles actually sold Jesus to His enemies and then hung himself. But the Resurrection still happened and the Church continued without him. And when it comes to the papal election, ultimately we trust that Jesus has picked the next pope, and the Holy Spirit will guide the cardinals to that man.
We all know that in centuries past some very sinful men have been elected to the papacy when other flawed men ignored the Holy Spirit in choosing these popes. [Note: Amazingly, sinful as they may have been, none of these popes ever led the Church astray in her doctrine]. For example, some elections were affected by the threats of kings or mobs, or by bribes. But that’s exactly why the current system of carefully crafted rules has been drawn up and refined over centuries to assure that the cardinals suffer the least temptations and distractions, e.g., the segregation of the cardinals from all contact with the outside world. (Note: the word “conclave” literally means “with a key,” i.e., “locked up”). As a result, the last several centuries have seen nothing but good and holy men elected to the papacy.
Keep in mind: for almost 2000 years the Church has been filled with flawed and even sinful people—both in the pews and in the hierarchy. Even so, the Catholic Church has constantly proclaimed the truth of Jesus Christ handed down from the Apostles through apostolic succession, in particular the Petrine succession. This “miracle of the Church” is a radical witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit and the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise: “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
Let us commend the cardinal-electors to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And let us pray for our next pope, whose name is already known, but to God alone.
Two quick points. Only one man is called to be Pope, but we need lots of people to do the more plentiful mundane work in our parish. During this time of Lent I particularly ask you to think and pray about volunteering to help on a committed basis in the parish. Be open to doing not so much what you enjoy, but what the parish needs. In particular, currently, we are in great need of adult ushers at Mass. Please call Paul DeRosa in the office if you are interested in ushering, or for information on other volunteer possibilities.
Finally, there’s been a lot of harsh and scary talk about the effects of the coming “sequestration.” No one knows what the fall out of this will be, but please remember that if anyone of you is truly in need of financial assistance, please do not hesitate to call the parish office. We are happy to help if we can.
Oremus pro invicem, et cardinales electors, et proximo Papa!
Fr. De Celles