Sede Vacante
Benedict reminded us repeatedly that Christ rules the Church and will continue to do so.


George Weigel

“Benedict XVI, pope emeritus” will, I am sure, do everything in his power to drive this point home. I very much doubt that we will see him for a very long time; we may never see him in public again. He is too much a churchman, too much a respecter of the prerogatives of the man who will succeed him under extremely difficult circumstances (that he, Benedict, in some sense, created) to do anything but stay off the stage. It is to be hoped that those with whom he takes counsel in the future grasp this as well as Benedict himself did when he said that he was now retiring from the scene, while remaining in solidarity with the Church in prayer.

Every Sede Vacante has a different emotional texture. In August 1978, many felt relief that the long agony that the papacy had been for Paul VI was now ended. A month later, the entire Church was in a profound state of shock in the Sede Vacante that followed the death of John Paul I, pope for 33 days — and that state of shock, according to one cardinal-elector in the second conclave of 1978, was the psychological condition for the possibility of breaking the Italian hammerlock on the papacy after 455 years. The Sede Vacante of 2005 was tinged with sadness, but the grief was accompanied by a sense of spiritual ennoblement: John Paul II had invited the world into his suffering and death, giving the world an experience of the mystery of suffering transformed by faith; and those who had accepted that invitation felt spiritually strengthened by it.

This situation is none of the above. The emptiness that many feel today — the emptiness that that aged Carmelite priest at S. Maria in Traspontina could not quite figure out what to do with this morning — is of a qualitatively different character. The Chair is empty, but without the spiritual and emotional catharsis of a papal funeral. The Chair is empty by renunciation, and the Church is sailing into uncharted waters without a helmsman and with a crew of senior officers that includes several public embarrassments. That, I suspect, is what many are feeling throughout the Church worldwide.

But if they are, in fact, feeling that way, they are missing the great last lesson taught by Benedict XVI on February 11, the day he made the shocking annoucement of his resignation, and that he reiterated on his last two days in office, at his final general audience and at his February 28 meeting with the College of Cardinals. Joseph Ratzinger has lived a Christocentric life for eight decades, and he maintained that focus on Christ to the end. He reminded the stunned cardinals listening to his intention on February 11 that it was Christ who ruled the Church, and would continue to rule the Church. He repeated the same message over the past two weeks. Those who care for the Church and about the Church should take it to heart, and take heart from it. Christ is the helmsman, although it may be difficult to discern the divine hand on the helm from time to time. But it is there. We have his word for it.

And now? What the Church manifestly needs is another pope who is transparent to the Christ living within him, who energizes others in the Church by the force of his faith and conviction, and who can, by who he is (as well as by what he says), invite others into a life-transforming and enriching friendship with Jesus Christ. That man can, and must, choose someone to clean up the Roman mess for him. He, the new pope, needs to get about the preaching of the gospel and the strengthening of the brethren, the work to which the Lord called Peter.

George Weigel is the author, most recently, of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books).