This has been a most unusual time in the life of the church. The illness and death of Pope John Paul II captured the attention of the world. Our loss of him saddened all of us because we knew that an extraordinary person and leader had left us.
But John Paul II’s death did more than just sadden people. His final days stimulated memories of his dynamic tenure, its significance and its impact on the papacy as we know it. Most would agree, I think, that the combination of John Paul’s personal abilities and charisma, his decision to travel extensively and the communications boom that paralleled his tenure made more people aware of the papacy than at any other time in our history.
The implications of what he said and did in his more than a quarter of a century as Bishop of Rome will be researched and written about for years to come. Critiques will be written. Judgments will be made about what he did and about what he didn’t do. I expect that he will be very well regarded by generations to come because of his virtue, the integrity of his convictions and the generosity of his service.
Now this special time of attentiveness to the ministry of Peter is extended as we welcome Pope Benedict XVI and support him in our prayers. The focus shifts from a sadness over losing the remarkable John Paul II to a curiosity about his successor. What will he be like? Will his priorities be those developed by John Paul II, or will he set off in some fresh directions? Will he travel as much, or will he focus his energies on administrative/pastoral matters closer to home? Will he bring to his new ministry the same pastoral priorities and theological views that characterized his work as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
Questions like these are examples of the countless questions I have heard since we learned of Pope Benedict’s election on April 19. Early statements by our new Holy Father indicate that he wishes to work hard on ecumenical and interfaith relationships and to continue to implement the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. I am sure that in the weeks ahead we will hear much more from him about what he would like to achieve and what he would ask of us.
As Benedict XVI settles into his ministry, I know that we will all be praying for God’s blessings on him. The pope has indicated that he wishes to be a humble worker in the vineyard working to proclaim the kingdom of God and to be of assistance to his sisters and brothers in their journeys of faith. Such an aspiration certainly merits the support of our prayer.
A final thought: Pope Benedict XVI is the 265th person to exercise the ministry of Peter. Each one of them brought to the office a particular range of gifts, a set of experiences, theological viewpoints and pastoral priorities that distinguished him from all the rest.
We are blessed to have a new Holy Father who loves the church, who has a wide variety of experience, who is an excellent theologian. He asks and merits our prayer that he will be open to the grace of the Holy Spirit in all that he does. May God give him long life and prosper the work of his hands.
Peace to all.