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Of Popes and Electronic Good-byes

Cari Donaldson - published on 02/11/13

The sadness of losing our "Papa"

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I was making the bed this morning when my husband came into the room, cell phone in hand.

“So, do you want to hear today’s out-of-left field news?”  His tone, more serious than joking, made me stiffen.  We have lots of out-of-left field news around here (“The four year old threw all his toys out the window and into the wading pool”; “There’s a bobcat walking down our driveway in broad daylight”; “Hey, we’re being transferred again.”). Out-of-left field news before I even get a chance to make the bed and have my morning coffee is never good.  I raised my eyebrows at him expectantly.

“The Pope’s resigning,” he said, and held out the phone to me.  There, on CNN’s website, was Pope Benedict’s heavily lined face, smiling gently, with both hands raised in greeting to the out-of-frame crowd.  

“What?  Why?”  I kept looking at the picture, wondering why the headline didn’t give more information.  Ken shrugged.

“All it says is health concerns,” he said, and walked out of the bedroom.


When Pope John Paul II was dying, I observed as an outsider.  I hadn’t joined the Church yet, and I was going on yet another tirade of protests against the Catholic Church.  The closer I came to embracing her, the more I insisted that the Church was a horrible, hurtful institution, whose final days we were having the privilege of watching.  There was nothing that the pundits on the news could say that was more hateful than the things I was already saying about Catholicism.

But I kept seeing all these Catholic churches with their parking lots full – even midweek.  I kept seeing all these images of people all over the world praying, keeping watch, staying with their Pope in his final days.

People all over the world were united in their love for this man.  And when he finally went home, I found myself mourning his passing, and crying in a restaurant bathroom.  Crying for a man who was the head of a Church I swore was the embodiment of evil.

The only thing I can attribute it to is that I was caught up in the ocean of prayers that the universal Church created to bear its earthly head back home.  I came away from John Paul II’s death with a concrete example of the universality of Catholicism.

Within a year, I had joined the Church.  Pope Benedict XVI had been the pontiff for many months already, and I already loved him.  I was so grateful to the Holy Spirit for, as always, guiding his Church and sending us such a brilliant man to serve.  And, as odd as it probably sounds, I looked forward to his inevitable last days, when I would join the vigil the Church would keep with my prayers – this time, no longer as an outsider.


Ken left the bedroom, his words still hanging in the air.  I thought I was going to cry, but the tears didn’t come, and I couldn’t figure out why I thought they should.

I was agitated as I made breakfast, and I was equally sad and irritated that I couldn’t articulate my reason for sorrow. I knew it wasn’t fear; the Holy Spirit would guide the Church, just as He has done for over two thousand years. 

I thought maybe it was weariness at the hatred (thinly disguised as commentary) that the mainstream media would be spewing during the course of the coming conclave.  I know the sort of ugliness in which I indulged during the last papal election, and I know how much it would hurt and anger me to hear it now that I am part of the Church toward which those comments had been directed.  But life coming back to make me eat humble pie is an experience I’m used to, and rarely does it inspire this sort of sadness.

Then, I saw this tweet by Father Dan Beeman, and I knew why I was so sad:

“You think you have a case of the Mondays? I woke up to find out my boss quit. And he told me on twitter.”

God is still in his Heaven, and the gates of his Kingdom, opened by Christ’s sacrifice, remain open for us, even as the Holy Spirit continues to guide this ship full of souls back to himself.  But one of the most unique and amazing things about the Church is that we are given an earthly, visible man to lead it.  We are given an earthly man to call, quite literally, “Papa”, and to look to as our Papa for encouragement and instruction on how to be disciples in this world, so that we might dwell in eternal happiness in the next.

And now, as Father Beeman noted via tweet, we have been told that our Papa is leaving.   My sorrow was that of a little child, who comes downstairs one morning to find a letter from her father on the kitchen counter, telling her that he’s left the family.

I don’t write this as a theologian.  I don’t write this as a spectator, excited to see how the events of this Lent will unfold.  I know that Pope Benedict is a good and faithful servant of the Lord, and that he has allowed the Holy Spirit to work through him for the good of the Church.  That includes his abdication, as shocking as it is.

Instead, I’m writing as a member of a universal family, who always knew she would have to say good-bye to her beloved father, but always assumed it would be at his deathbed, sending him off to God with prayers and bittersweet tears.  Instead, I’m writing this with an electronic goodbye note, dozens of questions, and the feeling that my father has walked away from his family.   Walked away with purpose and reasons and with the best interests of the family at heart, to be sure, but at this precise moment, those are small comforts in the face of heartache.

Cari Donaldson is a wife, homeschooling mother of six, and maker of pretty mean sandwiches. When her tiny overlords allow it, she blogs at Clan Donaldson.

Pope Benedict XVI
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