Catholic or not, unless you’re spent the last month on a deserted island cut off from all communication from the outside world, you know that Pope Benedict XVI resigned at the end of February, that the College of Cardinals has convened in Rome, and that today the cardinal electors (all cardinals under the age of 80) entered the Sistine Chapel and began the conclave that will choose his successor.
Benedict’s rare act of humility stands witness to an aspect of the papacy often overlooked. It is easy to focus on the trappings of power that have unfortunately adhered to the office over the last millennium. It is easy to recall the outrages committed in the name of Christ and his Church. And it is easy to dwell on the grandiose titles like Vicar of Christ and Supreme Pontiff. But the Papacy at its best is captured in the humblest papal title, the Servant of the Servants of God. Jesus told his disciples that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.” (Matthew 20:26-27) In resigning, Benedict expressed the servant ministry called for by Christ, and exemplified the humility called for by his namesake, Saint Benedict. He recognized when he was no longer capable of feed Christ’s sheep (John 21:17) and put aside the power and authority of the office so that a more able servant could take his place.
Now the Cardinal-electors are charged with choosing that more able servant, and it is to the benefit of not just the Catholic Church but to the whole world that they choose wisely, listening to the Holy Spirit in their attempt to discern the best candidate among them to take up the shepherd’s staff on behalf of the Good Shepherd. I now invite you, my Christian brothers and sisters of every denomination and of no denomination, to join me in prayer for the right person to lead the flock entrusted to him out of the wilderness of Lent and into the promise of Easter.
May the cardinals electors have the wisdom to choose someone who can follow Benedict’s unique lesson of humility. Someone who will remember the difference between the office and the man who holds it. We Catholics believe that Christ instituted this office, but the power that Christ granted is invested in the Chair of Saint Peter. It is not the personal possession of the man who occupies that chair at any given moment. He is but a humble servant of the Church. I pray that the cardinals choose one from amongst themselves who can be that humble servant.
May the next pope, once elected, remember that while he holds the keys given to Christ by Peter (as we Catholics again believe), those keys belong to the Church and are entrusted to him by the Church. Benedict’s humble act of returning the keys to the Church is a reminder that their power is held by the Church as the Body of Christ and exercised by Peter’s successor on the Church’s behalf. I pray that the next pope remembers that while he holds Peter’s place–and only for a short time–he is still but one part of the Body, and that no one takes Christ’s place as the Head.
May my fellow Catholics take this same lesson to heart. Pope John Paul II was a colossus and it is natural given the length of his reign that his personal charisma would become confused with the charism of his office. Now that almost seven years have passed since he surrendered the keys in death, and now that his successor has surrendered them in retirement, I pray that we too can remember that we are all the Church–the People of God–and the next pope is our elder brother while Christ alone remains our King.
May my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ outside visible communion with the Catholic Church extend their prayers, blessings, and goodwill to the next pope and to his flock, and may we can work together to the extent possible given our theological differences to spread the Gospel all the time praying that we may one day be visibly one as the Son and the Father are one. I pray that we continue to live out the Great Commission together within our own respective traditions.
May all people of the world, those of differing faiths and of no faith, extend their good will in whatever way best suits their beliefs to the next pope, encouraging him to be a witness to peace and justice to the leaders of the nations and a voice for the powerless in the presence of the powerful. I pray that we remember our shared humanity and our shared home.
I invite you to add your prayers in the comments, remembering to respect our differences both in doctrine and in discipline as I have tried my best to do. May we offer them all up in Jesus’ holy name.