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

  • ron morrison

    Change is in the wind.

  • Bill Marvel

    Why the sadness?
    The Holy Spirit has not deserted the Church. In fact, He will be there, hovering over the Cardinals as they deliberate on Benedict’s (and Peter’s) successor.
    If you miss Benedict, go back and re-read his three-volume “Jesus of Nazareth.” The volume on the Passion is a great Lenten read.

  • B Cheney

    Old lions never just retire somewhere and lick their wounds. This old lion’s prayers will continue to intercede for the Church, the Bride of Christ, with deep humility and great intercessory power, before the throne of his most beloved master.

  • bill

    ernio i appreciate your faithfulness and fevor, but i did not take the author’s comments so literally as you did. overal the author is saying what it feels like to him. he is not actually saying a reigning pope is the Divine Presence – the feeling is like it to him when the tabernacle is empty. and your last line that we do still have a Pope, well, we do not. The seat is truely empty.



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