Attentive to the times of the Church and to the profound meaning of Christian liturgy, Benedict XVI carefully chose the moment for that sensational announcement, a decision made long before. His declaration to renounce the papacy was, thus, set close to the start of Lent, a time of penance which for half a century Popes have opened with a week of silence and meditation in spiritual exercises.
This same week, one year later, coincides with first anniversary of the election of his Successor, who is at this moment on retreat with his closest collaborators. And one can be certain that Francis is living out this singular circumstance as though it were a sign.
The memories of that cold and rainy night are many and diverse, but – in the unprecedented novelty of a Bishop of Rome almost from “the ends of the earth” - the greatest novelty were in his first words, as meditative as they were simple, which were nothing but a prayer with the faithful. And following that Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be for his Predecessor was the silence of the people to invoke God's blessing upon the chosen one. Only then did the Successor of Peter bless “all the men and women of good will”, to take his leave with the announcement that the following day he would go to Our Lady to ask for her protection over the City.
One year has passed since that announcement of “great joy” (gaudium magnum) and a personal relationship with God is perhaps the best context within which to understand this Francis' Pontificate. As the Pope explains almost every day in his commentary on Scripture, God's mercy never tires of calling every human person (miserando atque eligendo), just as it once happened to him one September long ago but still vivid in his memory as though it were yesterday.
It will be left to historians to delve into this papal succession – which has no precedent in the history of the Church of Rome – but already now it seems clear that Benedict XVI's act was exemplary both in its humanity and Christianity. He was the protagonist of a great and important pontificate - revealed to many for what it was only by its conclusion – preparing for the election of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Reflecting on the renunciation of a Pope disposed the cardinals to listen in a profound way to the Bergoglio's intervention in the days preceding the Conclave, thereby convincing the electors of an urgent need for an ever more missionary Church that is ever less self-referential.
White smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel in the darkness and rain of a cold Roman night, confounding once again calculations and predictions – not just from journalists. The proclamation of a pontificate decisively set on the path of renewal takes up what was begun and called for by the Council half a century ago, calling the entire Church to action. She who does not want to be confined but wants to go out and witness to the joy and the hope of the Gospel to the women and men of today.
St. Peter’s Square
April 24, 2019
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