A Day of Rejoicing: Recollections of the day Benedict XVI became Pope
Like most people, or at least like most Catholics, I remember exactly where I was on April 2, 2005, the day on which John Paul II died. Minutes after hearing the doom-laden news, I gathered together with Father Joseph Fessio and a small group of students on the campus of Ave Maria University in Florida, in the open air, to pray for the pope. I don’t remember the actual prayers that were said but I do recall that we sang the Salve Regina, beseeching the intercession of the Blessed Virgin for the pope and for the Church.
Even as we grieved for the passing of one pope, our minds and prayers were already turning to thoughts of the next. The Church was under siege from her secularist enemies from without and was being betrayed by the modernists from within. She was in need of a strong and faithful shepherd to protect the flock from the wolves outside her walls, baying for her blood, and the wolves in sheep’s clothing within her own ranks, betraying her with a kiss. Even though we knew that Christ would protect His Bride, it was difficult to avoid feelings of anxiety as we awaited the election of John Paul’s, and Peter’s, successor.
Like most Catholics, I also remember where I was on April 19, 2005, the day on which Pope Benedict XVI was elected. I was once again on the campus of Ave Maria University and, in union with Catholics around the world, was waiting with bated breath for news from the conclave. As the chapel bell of the university began to chime, I knew that the wait was over. White smoke must have risen from the chimney above the Vatican. We had a new pope! I rushed to the cafeteria where a large group of students and faculty had already gathered, crowding around the TV screen. Hope and anxiety filled the room. The wait seemed interminable, the tension unbearable, the silence deafening. Highly charged emotions were held in check by the absence of knowledge; a vortex in a vacuum. The doors opened. Another excruciating wait before anyone emerged. Eventually Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez made the long-awaited announcement in Latin: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: HABEMUS PAPAM! As the name of Joseph Ratzinger was proclaimed as the new Vicar of Christ, all heaven broke loose! Everyone in the room erupted in sheer joy and jubilation, cheering and dancing. I found myself doing an impromptu jig with the Dean, leaping around in each other’s arms in a most indecorous manner! Father Fessio broke down with uncontrollable tears of joy. A former student of Ratzinger’s and a longtime champion of the Cardinal’s work, Fessio, as the founder of Ignatius Press, had published the first English translation of many of Ratzinger’s works. For this great and faithful Jesuit, his mentor’s election to the Chair of Peter was not only the answer to prayer but a dream come true. His personal joy was an additional reason for my own rejoicing, accentuating the sheer elation of the moment.
One imagines that the same scenes of joy erupted throughout the world wherever two or three faithful Catholics gathered together. In contrast, the election of Ratzinger was greeted with grief and horror by those whose heterodoxy and backsliding equivocations had been condemned by the new pope during his many years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As usual, these wolves in sheep’s clothing howled in unison with the wolves in the secular media, uniting themselves with the avowed enemies of the Church in their hatred of the hero of orthodoxy who had forced them into retreat during his years as John Paul II’s faithful and fearless servant. In the war of words that followed the pope’s election, the enemies of orthodoxy decried the new German Shepherd as “God’s Rottweiler”. Although the gentle and saintly Ratzinger did not deserve such an epithet, it is ironically apt that the wolves who would devour the flock should hate the Rottweiler who had courageously stopped them from doing so!
Such is my admiration for Benedict that I feel about him what G. K. Chesterton felt about the saintly Dominican, Vincent McNabb. Chesterton wrote that “Father McNabb is walking on a crystal floor over my head”. I feel at least as strongly that Benedict walks on a crystal floor over my head, not only in terms of his sanctity and in terms of his wisdom and his scholarship, but in the sense of the great gift that his papacy was for the Church.