There Is No Pope

There is no pope. There is no pope. There is no pope.

The phrase didn’t occur to me as the bell of St. Benedict’s Abbey  tolled over and over again for 10 minutes starting at 1:00 pm (8:00 pm in Rome) to mark the resignation of the Pope.

The phrase occurred to me when the bell stopped tolling and the Abbey grew silent.

St. Benedict's Abbey

St. Benedict’s Abbey tolled its bells as the Pope stepped down.

There is no pope. There is no pope. There is no pope.

Benedictine College is on the Kansas bank of the Missouri River, and when we cross the bridge into Atchison, the kids like to say “We’re in Missouri. We’re in Missouri. We’re in Missouri,” until we get halfway across, and then say, “We’re in Kansas. We’re in Kansas. We’re in Kansas.” We jokingly planned to do the same at the hour of the Pope’s retirement: “There is a Pope. There is a Pope. There is a Pope … There is no pope. There is no pope. There is no pope.”

But now, when the bell stopped tolling and there was no pope, I remembered the phrase — and it wasn’t funny anymore.

We are in the interregnum. The chair of Peter is vacant. The Vatican Twitter account is revoked. The Vatican website weirdly says Apostolica Sede Vacans next to an umbrella.

The Universal Church feels like my parish church on Good Friday when the tabernacle is empty.

There is no pope.

Kneeling there with the students (and the TV cameras; we were a “local angle” on the historic “Pope retires” story) the moment was far more emotional than I expected. The whole thing reminded me of Acts:  “So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.”

Only now Peter wasn’t in prison. He was rising up out of the Vatican Gardens in a helicopter. He had grown old and frail and had stopped being Pope. I don’t fault him for it, I don’t consider it a Great Refusal, I don’t think he is stepping off a cross. In fact I think he shows compassion and magnanimity greater than his critics can even conceive. In his method of ending his papacy, he has shown himself to be a man of the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the meek.

What he is doing is truly great.

But that doesn’t make it any less weird.

Back at my office, I took down the picture of the Pope from my wall. Colleagues suggested that that this was unnecessary, and I appreciate their point.

I almost kept the picture up there, too. I still greatly admire him. I still feel grateful that I lived at the time when he was Pope, and I still think that the most thorough, affordable theological education you can give yourself is to read his deep and clear writing every day.

But though I love his writing, that wasn’t the reason I had him on my wall. I had him on my wall because he was the Pope. And he is not the Pope anymore.

I remember during the Jubilee Year I briefly stayed in an apartment across the street from the colonnade of St. Peter’s. I was a father of five, but I was all alone in Rome. I loved it. I loved hearing a commotion in St. Peter’s Square and rushing out to see what was going on and finding myself a part of a celebration of one aspect of the faith or another.

I also loved going on early morning walks through the colonnade. It was on one of those early morning walks that I found myself face to face with a figure in an overcoat headed toward a side door at St. Peter’s. It was Cardinal Ratzinger. I stopped dead in my tracks and gaped, foolishly starstruck. It was obvious to him that I recognized him. He smiled shyly, nodded, and walked purposefully out of my way.

I believe Jesus Christ chose Peter to be the rock, and that he gives us his successors. And though I like the charming stories of the Galilean fisherman who was Andrew’s brother, absent Christ from the story I wouldn’t give Peter a second thought.

I believe God gave the Church the continuity of a magisterium and the grace of a vicar of Christ at its head. I think Pope Benedict XVI did a wonderful job in the role God gave him there, and I am grateful for his openness to God’s grace.

But now I can’t help but think of him as that shy, retiring man ducking into St. Peter’s through a utility door. A great man, I am convinced. But not the pope.

There is no pope.

I pray God we will have one soon.


Categories:Breaking News Church News Pope Benedict

  • Antonio A. Badilla

    Dear Tom,

    Will you reconsider placing the picture of Benedict XVI back on the wall? I still have the picture of Blessed John Paul II on the wall, a picture I got in Mexico when he visited that nation in 1979 and I still have the picture of my favorite Pope, Venerable Pius XII. These were great men that Catholics should seek to emulate.

  • Ernie Gargaro

    There is no moderation. My comments stand as written. There is nothing wrong with them.

    Vivat Jesus!

  • Ernie Gargaro

    I am a member of the 4th Degree of the Knights of Columbus and a faithful Catholic. I am a supporter of Benedict XVI and I am very thankful for his reign. However, the author is out of line in his statement, “The Universal Church feels like my parish church on Good Friday when the tabernacle is empty..” First of all, the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit is with us all days, not just the days that there is a reigning Pope. We are not empty like the tabernacle in his Church until a new Pope is elected, that is just ludicrous. Second, and most importantly, the author makes a very dangerous and heretic statement when he equates the presence of a reigning Pope with the Divine Presence in the Eucharist.

    We are all saddened by the renunciation of the Papacy by Benedict and look with hope to the next Pope, elected with the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Conclave to lead the Church. But to equate this temporary vacancy of the Chair of St. Peter to the absence of the Divine Presence is out of bounds and over the top. The fact is, we do still have a Pope, He is currently a member of the College of Cardinals awaiting his formal designation.

  • Catherine

    I am keeping my picture of Benedict XVI prominently displayed. It is a postcard which also includes John Paul II. I do this because they are both holy and humble servants of Christ who have both inspired and guided me. They are visual reminders that, while they are no longer acting as head of the Church, Christ is always present among us.


    Dear Tom ~ As far a praying we have a new pope soon, I recall that Jefferson said “Delay is preferable to error” and Marine Corps Management Principle # 1 says “Aim for the 70% solution. It’s better to decide quickly than to roll out a perfect plan when it’s too late. I always taught my staffs that much of leadership consists of knowing which of these two maxims apply to any given situation.

    We’ve been in this Sede Vacan situation many times before and the Church hasn’t collapsed. Thus, I hope that, in this case the Cardinals listen to Jefferson rather than Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children. ~ Pax, Greg

  • Sheila Beingessner

    I really think you have found the perfect profession, inspiring students with your enthusiasm for the faith as you also do with your children at home is a gift. May God continue to bless you in this wonderful work.



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