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Who Will Take Up the Keys of Peter?

Sandro Magister - published on 02/14/13

Benedict's abdication could mark a revolution in the Catholic Church

ROME, February 14, 2013 – On the evening of an unremarkable Thursday in Lent, at 8 p.m. on February 28, Joseph Ratzinger will take the step that none of his predecessors had dared to take. He will place upon the throne of Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Which another will be called to take up.

There is the power of a revolution in this action that has no equal even in centuries long ago. From that point on, the Church enters into unknown territory. It will have to elect a new pope while his predecessor is still alive, his words still resounding, his orders still binding, his agenda still waiting to be implemented.

Those cardinals who on the morning of Monday, February 11 were convoked in the hall of the  consistory for the canonization of the eight hundred Christians of Otranto martyred by the Turks six centuries ago were stunned at hearing Benedict XVI, at the end of the ceremony, announce in Latin his resignation of the pontificate.

It will be up to them, in the middle of Lent, to choose his successor. On Palm Sunday, March 24, the newly elect will celebrate his first Mass in St. Peter's Square, on the day of the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, acclaimed as the “blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord.”


There will be 117 cardinals who in the middle of March will close themselves up in conclave, the same number as those who eight years ago elected pope Joseph Ratzinger at the fourth scrutiny with more than two thirds of the votes, in one of the most rapid and least contentious elections in history.

But this time it will be completely different. The announcement of the resignation has taken them by surprise like a thief in the night, without a long twilight of the pontificate as had happened with John Paul II, allowing them to arrive at the conclave with sufficiently vetted options already in place.

In 2005, the candidacy of Ratzinger did not emerge all of a sudden; it had already matured for at least a couple of years, and all of the alternative candidacies had fallen one after another. Today this is certainly far from the case. And to the difficulty of identifying candidates is added the unprecedented overshadowing of the retired pope.

The conclave is an electoral mechanism unique in the world that, refined over time, has succeeded in the last century in producing astonishing results, elevating as pope men of decisively higher quality than the average level of the college of cardinals that has voted for them.

To cite the most remarkable case, the election in 1978 of Karol Wojtyla was a master stroke that will remain forever in the history books.

And the appointment of Ratzinger in 2005 was no less so, as confirmed by the almost eight years of his pontificate, marked by an unbridgeable distance between the greatness of the elect and the mediocrity of so many of his electors.

Moreover, the conclaves have often been characterized by the capacity of the college of cardinals to set new lines of action for the papacy. The sequence of the most recent popes in this regard as well.

It is not a long, gray, repetitive and boring queue. It is a succession of men and events, each marked by powerful originality. The unexpected announcement of the council made by Pope John XXIII to a group of cardinals gathered at St. Paul's Outside the Walls was certainly no less surprising and revolutionary than the announcement of the resignation made by Benedict XVI to another group of stupefied cardinals a few days ago.

But in the upcoming weeks, something will happen that has never been seen before. The cardinals will have to evaluate what to confirm or innovate with respect to the previous pontiff, with him still alive. Everyone recalls and admires the respect with which Ratzinger dealt even with those who disagreed with him: for Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the most authoritative of his opponents, he always manifested a profound and sincere admiration. But in spite of his promise to retire in prayer and study, almost in cloister, it is difficult to imagine that his presence, as silent as it may be, would not weigh upon the cardinals called to conclave, and then upon the newly elect. It is inevitably easier to debate with freedom and frankness about a pope in heaven than about a former pope on earth.


Until February 28, the agenda of Benedict XVI will not undergo any modifications. After the rite of Ash Wednesday and with a “lectio" to the priests of Rome on Vatican Council II, he will face the Sunday Angelus, hold the Wednesday general audience, attend the spiritual exercises and listen to the preaching of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, receive on their “ad limina" visit the bishops of Liguria led by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, and then those of Lombardy, headed by Cardinal Angelo Scola.

Fate would have it that precisely in one of these two cardinals, he could be greeting the future pope.

In Italy, in Europe, and in North America the Church is going through difficult years, of general decline. But here and there with real awakenings of vitality and of public influence, even unexpectedly, as has recently happened in France. Once again, therefore, the cardinal electors could focus on candidates from this area, which in any case continues to hold the theological and cultural leadership over the whole Church. And Italy itself might be back in the race, after two pontificates that have gone to a Pole and a German.

Among the Italian candidates, Scola, 71, appears the most solid. He was trained as a theologian in the cenacle of “Communio,” the international magazine that had Ratzinger among its founders. He was the disciple of Fr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communion and Liberation. He was rector of the Lateranense, the university of the Church of Rome. He was the patriarch of Venice, where he demonstrated effective managerial abilities and created a theological and cultural center, the Marcianum, reaching out with the magazine “Oasis” toward the confrontation between the West and the East, Christian and Islamic. For almost two years he has been archbishop of Milan. And here he has introduced a pastoral style very attentive to the “far away,” with invitations to the Masses in the cathedral distributed on street corners and in subway stations, and with special care for the divorced and remarried, who are encouraged to approach the altar to receive not communion but a special blessing.

In addition to Scola, another entry for the list of candidates could be Cardinal Bagnasco, 70, archbishop of Genoa and president of the Italian episcopal conference.

Not to mention the current patriarch of Venice, Francesco Moraglia, 60, a rising star of the Italian episcopate, a pastor of strong spiritual life and very much beloved by the faithful. His limitation is that he is not a cardinal. Nothing prohibits the election of someone who is not part of the sacred college, but even the highly credentialed Giovanni Battista Montini, although projected as pope in1958 after the death of Pius XII, had to wait until he received the scarlet before he was elected in 1963 with the name of Paul VI. 

Outside of Italy, the college of cardinals seems to be focusing on North America.

Here one candidate who could meet the expectations is the Canadian Marc Ouellet, 69, multilingual, he as well trained theologically in the cenacle of “Communion,” for many years a missionary in Latin America, then archbishop of Québec, one of the most secularized regions of the planet, and today the prefect of the Vatican congregation that selects the new bishops all over the world.

Apart from Ouellet, two North Americans who elicit appreciation in the college of cardinals are Timothy Dolan, 63, the dynamic archbishop of New York and president of the episcopal conference of the United States, and Sean O'Malley, 69, the archbishop of Boston.

But nothing prevents the next conclave from deciding to abandon the old world and open up to the other continents.

If from Latin America and Africa, where indeed the majority of the world's Catholics live, there do not seem to emerge prominent personalities capable of attracting votes, the same is not true of Asia.

On this continent, soon to become the new axis of the world, the Catholic Church also is wagering its future. In the Philippines, which is the only nation in Asia where Catholics are in the majority, there shines a young and cultured cardinal, archbishop of Manila Luis Antonio Tagle, the focus of growing attention.

As a theologian and Church historian, Tagle was one of the authors of the monumental history of Vatican Council II published by the progressive “school of Bologna.” But as a pastor, he has demonstrated a balance of vision and a doctrinal correctness that Benedict XVI himself has highly appreciated. Especially striking is the style with which the bishop acts, living simply and mingling among the humblest people, with a great passion for mission and for charity.

One of his limitations could be the fact that he is 56, one year younger than the age at which pope Wojtyla was elected. But here the novelty of Benedict XVI's resignation again comes into play. After this action of his, youth will no longer be an obstacle to being elected pope.



Benedict XVI's resignation from the papacy is for him neither a defeat nor a surrender. “The future is ours, the future belongs to God,” he said against the prophets of disaster in his last public proclamation before the announcement of the resignation, on the evening of Friday, February 8 at the Roman seminary.

And two winters ago, speaking precisely of his possible future resignation, he had cautioned: “One cannot run away at the moment of danger and say: Let someone else take care of it. One can resign at a moment of serenity, or when one simply cannot go on anymore.”

If now, therefore, pope Joseph Ratzinger has decided in conscience that his day as a “humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord" has come to an end, it is simply because he has seen two conditions fulfilled: the moment is serene, and the vigor of "administering well" has failed him under the burden of years.

In effect, a calm seems to have intervened after the many tempests that have followed one after another in the almost eight years of his pontificate. A calm that has however left intact the positions of power in the curia that for many years have fostered disorder.

It will be the last two secretaries of state, cardinals Angelo Sodano and Tarcisio Bertone, neither of whom is innocent, who will govern the interregnum between one pope and the other, the former as dean of the college of cardinals, the latter as camerlengo. But afterward both will definitively leave the stage. For the other heads of the curia, the “spoils system” that is set into motion by canon law at each change of pontificate will free the new pope, if he so desires, from the administrators of the previous management.

Over his nearly eight years of pontificate, Benedict XVI has been resolute and farsighted in indicating the destinations and keeping the rudder straight. But on the barque of Peter, the crew has not always been faithful to him.

This is what happened when he dictated a rigorous line of conduct in order to fight the scandal of pedophilia among the clergy, clashing with hypocritical and delayed implementations..

The same thing happened when he ordered cleanliness and transparency in ecclesiastical financial offices, seeing these disregarded.

This is what happened when he saw himself betrayed by his trusted butler, who violated his privacy and stole his most personal papers.

But there is more than that. Pope Ratzinger has fought first of all and above all to  revive the faith of the Church, to correct its waywardness in doctrine, morality, the sacraments, and the commandments. And here as well he has often found himself alone, opposed, misunderstood.

It has been, in short, an incomplete reform that Benedict XVI has pursued. In resigning, he has recognized that he can no longer move it forward with his diminished strength. And he has trusted the conclave to elect a new pope with the strength necessary to do the job.

His is a supernatural wager that recalls that of his predecessor John Paul in the last painful years of his life.


Among the analysts of the Church, it is Professor Pietro De Marco of the University of Florence who has grasped most incisively the significance of the audacious resignation of Benedict XVI.

There seems to be a vast difference between the current pope and his predecessor John Paul II, who instead of resigning wanted to “stay on the cross” until the end. But this is not the case.

Pope Karol Wojtyla was facing a symmetrical risk: entrusting the governance of the Church, meaning its “good,” to the intact powers of a successor of his, instead of to the spiritual benefits offered by a prolonged resignation to his own weakness, remaining in office.

The charisma of John Paul II and the rationality of Benedict XVI are the two inseparable sides of the last two pontificates, the cipher of which is found in their respective final acts.

It is therefore senseless to see in the resignation of the current pope the dawn of a new praxis that would oblige future pontiffs to resign on account of infirmity or advanced age, possibly under the judgment of a visible or invisible jury made up of physicians, bishops, canonists, psychologists.

The decision of a pope to resign or to remain in office for life is always and only his own, in the constitution of the Church. Benedict XVI decided on his resignation “in conscience before God,” and did not submit it to anyone. He simply announced it.

And now he has placed everything back in the imponderable hands of the next conclave and of the future pontiff. De Marco comments:

"What is at stake, as far as human judgment can determine, is enormous. But in this I trust: just as the supreme risk of John Paul II in governing the Church with his suffering being obtained the miracle of the election of Pope Benedict, so also the risk, just as radical, of Benedict in handing the leadership of the Church back to Christ in order that he may give the burden of it to a new and vigorous pope will obtain another pontiff equal to the challenge of history.”


The two articles by Sandro Magister were published in “L'Espresso" no. 7 of 2013, on newsstands as of February 15.


The Latin text of the “declaratio” by which Benedict XVI announced his resignation of the papacy:

> "Fratres carissimi, non solum…"

And this is its translation into English:

> "I declare that I renounce…"


On the morning of Wednesday, February 13, at the beginning of the general audience, Benedict XVI announced his resignation to the faithful as follows:

"Dear Brothers and Sisters, as you know, I have decided – thank you for your kindness – to renounce the ministry which the Lord entrusted to me on 19 April 2005. I have done this in full freedom for the good of the Church, after much prayer and having examined my conscience before God, knowing full well the seriousness of this act, but also realizing that I am no longer able to carry out the Petrine ministry with the strength which it demands. I am strengthened and reassured by the certainty that the Church is Christ’s, who will never leave her without his guidance and care. I thank all of you for the love and for the prayers with which you have accompanied me. Thank you; in these days which have not been easy for me, I have felt almost physically the power of prayer – your prayers – which the love of the Church has given me. Continue to pray for me, for the Church and for the future Pope. The Lord will guide us."

And immediately afterward, the pope held an introductory catechesis for Lent, reflecting on the temptations of Jesus in the desert and calling all to conversion following the example of St. Paul, of St. Augustine, and in modern times of Pavel Florenskij, Etty Hillesum, and Dorothy Day:

> "Oggi, mercoledì delle ceneri…"

Saying among other things:

“The trials to which contemporary society subjects the Christian, in fact, are many, and touch upon personal and social life. It is not easy to be faithful to Christian marriage, to practice mercy in everyday life, to leave room for prayer and inner silence. It is not easy to oppose publicly choices that many consider obvious, such as abortion in the case of an undesired pregnancy, euthanasia in the case of serious illness, or the selection of embryos to prevent hereditary diseases. The temptation of setting one's faith aside is always present, and conversion becomes a response to God that must be confirmed a number of times in life.”


The homily of the last Mass celebrated in public by Benedict XVI as pope, on the afternoon of February 13, Ash Wednesday:

> "Cari fratelli e sorelle…"

In it, the pope said among other things:

"The prophet [Joel] dwells upon the prayer of the priests, who, with tears in their eyes, turn to God saying: 'Do not let your heritage become a disgrace, a byword among the nations! Why should they say among the peoples, "Where is their God?"' (2:17). This prayer makes us reflect upon the importance of the testimony of the Christian faith and life of each one of us and of our communities in order to manifest the face of the Church and how this face may become, at times, disfigured. I am thinking in particular of offenses against the unity of the Church, of divisions in the ecclesial body. To live Lent in a more intense and evident ecclesial communion, overcoming individualism and rivalry, is a humble and valuable sign for those who are far from the faith or indifferent."


A detailed historical reconstruction of all of the cases in which the pope has resigned or had to resign his ministry, taken from “L'Osservatore Romano"  of February 12:

> Scesi dal soglio di Pietro

And how the hypothesis of resignation was taken into consideration during the most recent pontificates, from Paul VI on:

> Vatican Diary / Resignation of the pope. Theory and practice


English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.


The latest three articles from www.chiesa:


> "I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome"

The complete text of the announcement of the resignation


The Pope's Two "No's". To the Prophets of Disaster and to the False Optimists

The "lectio divina" of Benedict XVI to the aspiring priests of Rome. "If here and there the Church is dying because of the sins of men, at the same time it is being born anew and bears within itself eternity. The future is ours"


> The Impossible "Road Map" of Peace with the Lefebvrists

A leading representative of the traditionalist camp lays down the conditions for healing the schism. There are four of them, but three appear impracticable. Fr. Divo Barsotti's criticisms of Vatican Council II


For more news and commentary, see the blog that Sandro Magister maintains, available only in Italian:


(Originally published on Chiesa on February 14th, 2013)

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