On February 11th, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world when he announced to Cardinals gathered at the Sistine Chapel that due to his advanced age he would resign from the ministry of Bishop of Rome. The Pope who many hold up as the champion of tradition ended his Papacy with a most untraditional act, resignation. That morning as I heard this news on the radio, I considered I would not have been shocked to hear of the Pope’s death, yet I found myself absolutely in shock at learning of his resignation. On February 28th, when Pope Benedict vacated his office, the century-old procedure that leads to the election of a new Pope was set in motion, but this time without the mourning of a dead Pontiff.
As Cardinals gather prior to the election of a new Pope, they hold gatherings which allow these men who come from all corners of the world to spend time together in dialogue. It provides an opportunity to discuss the pressing issues of the Church universal, as well as a forum to candidly state what qualities the next successor of Saint Peter should have.
During these pre-conclave General Congregation meetings, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires made a brief but powerful four-minute long intervention where he considered the major problems in the Church. Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino of Cuba was so impressed with this intervention that he asked Bergoglio for a copy of his words. Since there was no prepared text, Bergoglio jotted down an outline of his intervention. His brief words have proven to be a foreshadowing of his Papacy, showing that the words and actions of Pope Francis are simply a continuation of the ministry and life experiences of Cardinal Bergoglio.
The Cardinal first noted that the Church must come out of herself and go to the geographical and existential peripheries of the world. He named some of the existential peripheries common to every human being: sin, pain, injustice, ignorance, indifference to religion, intellectual currents, and misery. Next he warned that if the Church does not go out to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and gets sick. He proposed the powerful image that perhaps Jesus is knocking at a door from within the Church desiring to go out. The Church selfishly keeps Jesus to herself. His third point stressed the result of a self-referential Church, which is the erroneous belief that the light of the Church is her own, rather than the light of Christ. The Church is meant to reflect the light of Christ outside of herself, otherwise she falls into spiritual worldliness. Lastly, Bergoglio urged the Cardinals that the next Pope should be a man who helps the Church go out to the existential peripheries so she may become a fruitful mother.
For the past three and a half years, Pope Francis has put into action what he explained in four minutes, and what he explained in four minutes was the fruit of forty-four years of priestly ministry. Through the untraditional resignation of Pope Benedict, God has blessed us with what many perceive as an untraditional Pope. His words and actions come from the heart of the Gospel, and are the fruit of his life-long journey as a man who has experienced great challenges and the unfathomable depths of God’s mercy.