About a half-hour ago, at 2:00 p.m. EST today, the Apostolic See became vacant. We tolled the church bells, and I removed Pope Benedict's picture from the church narthex and from the parish office. Earlier at the noon Mass, I had informed the congregation that this would be the last time we would pray with Pope Benedict in the eucharistic prayer, but that of course we should all continue to pray for and with him, as he devotes himself to prayer for the Church.
I was 10 years old the first time the Apostolic See became vacant in my lifetime. That was October 1958. I remember seeing a picture in the newspaper of Cardinal Spellman and a group of New York pilgrims having an audience with Pope Pius XII at Castel Gandolfo at the beginning of October. About a week later The Daily News had headlines like "Pope Sinking Fast," until finally on the morning of October 9, the front-page headline was "Pope Is Dead," complete with a hieratic photo of the Pope seated (somewhat sternly it seemed to me at the time) on his throne. Then came the pictures of him lying in repose at Castel Gandolfo - in winter mozetta and camauro, which prompted one of my classmates to remark that he looked like Santa Claus. I can recall the evening news footage of the procession returning his body to Rome along the Appian Way and the first references to the famous failure of the papal embalming. I remember too the helicopter picking up Cardinal Spellman from the ocean liner he and his fellow New York pilgrims had been returning home on - and his hurried return instead to Rome. And I remember walking home from school past the purple and black bunting over all the doors of the church. I recall The Sunday News "coloroto" magazine's photos of the Sistine Chapel ready for the conclave with the 50+ cardinalatial thrones, with their purple canopies, all but one of which would eventually be lowered when one of their number would respond accepto to his election as the next pope. And, of course, I remember the day the new pope was elected - how home for lunch I listened to his first blessing on the radio, then joined in the general jubilation in the street where we lined up to go back to school, even while we speculated when the new pope would be crowned and get us a day off. (Alas, Pope John XXIII was crowned on Tuesday, November 4, which was, of course, Election Day, which meant we were off from school anyway).
Of course, I remember all the subsequent vacancies and conclaves - June 1963, August 1978, September-October 1978, and April 2005 - but that first one really stands out, perhaps because it was the first, and , like most things, made an impression the first time one experienced it. It was, in fact, although I was largely unaware of it, a moment of tremendous challenge and change for the church. In his rather negative book on the popes of the 20th century, Carlo Falconi interpeted the visible decay of Pope Pius XII's body while lying in state as somehow symbolic of the sad state of things at the time and of the need for reform. In my ethnic, Bronx Catholic ghetto bubble, I had no notion at all as yet that anything might need fixing. But the 60s were just over the horizon and Harold Macmillan's famous "winds of change" would soon be blowing - not just in Africa and in politics, but everywhere and even in the Church. (And in my own life too, but tha ,as they say, is another story).
One hears a lot these days in the media about problems and even scandals in the Church. It sounds a bit like 1958 again. Of course, now as then, there are problems and even scandals - problems and scandals to be addressed and remedied, not just by the next pope but by the entire Church. But hasn't it always been thus in the long life of the Church? I think Pope Benedict expressed it well when he said in his last General Audience yesterday:
"I have felt like St. Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant; [then] there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been – and the Lord seemed to sleep. Nevertheless, I always knew that the Lord is in the barque, that the barque of the Church is not mine, not ours, but His – and He shall not let her sink. It is He, who steers her: to be sure, he does so also through men of His choosing, for He desired that it be so."