“Habemus Papam” (We have a Pope)—these are the words the cardinal deacon uses to announce the election of a new pope to the expectant crowd at St. Peter’s Square. It is also the title of an Italian movie shown in 2011, which tells the story of a fictional conclave of cardinals convened to elect a new pope. In the film, the assembled cardinals repeatedly fail to produce a clear choice. As the ballots are read, some of them are heard mumbling: “Please, Lord, not me.”
Finally, after countless frustrating attempts to come up with a consensus, the vote yields the name of Cardinal Melville, who has never been mentioned as a possible pontiff. Totally stunned, the gentle and venerable Melville is unable to think properly. Under immense pressure from his peers, who spontaneously break out into a religious chant, he finds himself accepting the position. But, just before he steps onto the balcony to give his blessing to the people below, he is seized by panic. He withdraws and literally runs away. He comes back one day after, more calm, but also more certain that he is not the man the Church needs at a time like this.
In his book “Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait,” Peter Seewald recounts that spring afternoon of April 19, 2005, when Joseph Ratzinger emerges from the curtains of this historic balcony for the first time as the newly elected Pope, and begins to speak to the huge crowd. “You could not miss the exhaustion in his voice. Following the ‘great Pope John Paul II,’ the new pontiff starts, ‘the cardinals have chosen me, a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.’ It consoles him, he says, that the Lord ‘is able to work’ even ‘with inadequate instruments,’ and thus ‘I entrust myself to your prayers.’”
Unlike in the movie, it took only three sessions for the conclave to choose the 264th successor to the chair of Peter. In the third balloting, Ratzinger received much more than the required two-thirds majority. He was a clear favorite from the start, along with Cardinal Martini, the Archbishop of Milan. But many observers could not resist thinking that the shy Bavarian had deftly maneuvered himself as John Paul II’s logical successor. Because he was at that time the dean of the college of cardinals, it fell on Ratzinger to open the conclave and deliver the sermon. Church progressives feared his possible election. In their minds, no one was more badly suited to lead a Church in crisis than this “reactionary” theologian who served for many years as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In the Seewald book, Benedict recalls how he felt during that unsettling moment: “As the course of the voting gradually led me to perceive that the guillotine was going to fall on me, so to speak, I felt quite dizzy. I had believed I had completed my life’s work.” He remembers telling the Lord: “Don’t do this to me! You have younger and better men, who can approach this great task with very different élan and very different strength.”
It is now easier to believe—in the wake of his shocking resignation—that Benedict had indeed accepted his election in 2005 with great reluctance. He knew how impossible it was to fill the shoes of a well-loved and charismatic pontiff like JPII. But he also knew that for him to be troubled by the prospect of being compared unfavorably with his friend would have been the height of egoism and selfishness.
Those who knew him well were not sure he would accept the position. One of them, a fellow cardinal, sent him a note before the third balloting: “If the Lord should say to you now, ‘Follow me!’, then remember what you said in your sermon. Do not refuse! Be obedient, as you said of the late great Pope.” That short message “went to my heart,” Benedict recalls. “The ways of the Lord are not comfortable, but then we are not made for comfort, but for greatness, for goodness.”
Having worked in the Vatican for a long time and having been the butt of snide remarks on account of the tasks he had to perform to protect the Church, Benedict was not a stranger to the power struggles inside the Vatican. It was no doubt for his brothers in the clergy that he once said: “We are not working to defend a position of power. In truth we are working so that the streets of the world may be open for Christ.”
It is thus not surprising that Benedict thought it important to dwell on the same message in one of his last sermons. On Ash Wednesday, he reflected on the three temptations that Jesus is subjected to in the desert. “In the second, the devil offers Jesus the path of power; he leads him up on high and gives him dominion over the world. But this is not the path of God: Jesus clearly understands that it is not earthly power that saves the world, but the power of the Cross, humility, love.”
He went on to articulate what it means to renew one’s faith in an increasingly secularized environment. “The alternative between being wrapped up in our egoism and being open to the love of God and others … corresponds to the alternative … between human power and love of the Cross, between a redemption seen only in material well-being and redemption as the work of God, to whom we give primacy in our lives. Conversion means not closing in on ourselves in the pursuit of success, prestige, position, but making sure that each and every day, in the small things, truth, faith in God and love, become most important.”
Benedict XVI proved all his detractors wrong. He articulated a profound understanding of the nature of the modern world in which the Church must make its presence felt. And, by giving up his position when he no longer felt adequate to its tasks, he exemplified an indifference to worldly power that eloquently sums up the way of the Lord.