The world’s attention is focused on Rome as we begin the interregnum period, the time during the vacancy of the seat of St. Peter and the election of a new pope. This is a historic moment.
As a bishop, I have been required to write the pope personally in the last 12 years. In the letters, I addressed the pope using his various titles: His Holiness the Pope Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of Vatican City State, Servant of the Servants of God. Reading the titles, it’s obvious how significant the papal office is to the life of the church, to the world, to the Vatican City State and to Rome, Italy.
I felt sad on the final day of Pope Benedict’s papacy. Why was this different than other times when we experienced the need for a new pope and a conclave? Other times in our recent history the pope had died. There was a period of mourning and, of course, the funeral. This added a sense of closure.
But with the resignation or abdication from the papal office, it feels more like a beloved pastor being moved to a new assignment or retiring. Even though there are good reasons for a pastor’s reassignment or retirement, it is still sad to think that
Father will no longer be there having an impact on our spiritual lives. In that same sense, we will miss our Holy Father, who has been our pastor and our shepherd.
During the time of the “vacant see” the church will be in a holding pattern; there will be no innovation in the official life of the church. The Vatican will continue its day-to-day operations under the leadership of the cardinals, especially the Secretary of State, the camerlengo or chamberlain.
If you remember in 2009, then-Auxiliary Bishop William P. Callahan was appointed administrator over the Archdiocese of Milwaukee during the period after Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan and before a successor was named. As administrator, Bishop Callahan was charged with making the necessary decisions for the proper functioning of the archdiocese, but he was precluded from making any major decisions for the archdiocese.
It’s much like many of our parishes when they experience the loss of a pastor. An administrator is appointed who makes the decisions necessary to carry out the tasks for the day-to-day operations, but he may not make any major changes or decisions in the life of the parish. There are some changes that we will immediately experience. For instance, during our liturgies there is a point during the eucharistic prayer, sometimes referred to as the Canon of the Mass, that is a commemoration for the pope. This is the point that most trips up celebrants when a new pope is named because we are so accustomed to saying the prior pope’s name.
In eucharistic prayer III we would have said: “May this Sacrifice of our reconciliation we pray O Lord advance the peace and salvation of all the world. Be pleased to confirm in faith and charity our pilgrim church on earth with your servant Benedict our pope and Jerome our bishop, the order of bishops, all the clergy, and the entire people you have gained for your own.
Now, during the interregnum, it will read: “May this Sacrifice of our reconciliation, we pray, O Lord, advance the peace and salvation of all the world. Be pleased to confirm in faith and charity your pilgrim church on earth, with Jerome our bishop, all the clergy, and the entire people you have gained for your own.”
The liturgy reflects the reality we are without a pope. We are less complete without that reference. However, it gives me great comfort as an archbishop to realize that throughout the archdiocese daily prayers are being offered for the church and for me as the archbishop. It is those prayers that give the church and me, in particular, the strength to persevere during the most trying of times.
The shepherd’s ring and the papal seal, which is a sign of the pope’s office, were defaced so that they could not be used to authenticate any official documents. In much the same way, pastors’ and bishops’ names will be removed from all official papers when there is a change in leadership because they no longer have the authority of their office.
The pope will make himself scare so that his successor will have the opportunity to establish himself. Again, this is much like the transition in a parish community when the former pastor knows the importance of not being a distraction to the efforts of the new leader.
You might have noticed how similar the change of a pastor is to that of the pope or even a change in the office of bishop. They are all pastors, shepherds of their flock, but of course the pope’s flock is a “little bigger.”
As our eyes are drawn to the church universal, let us not forget that it begins with the individual parishes which are all connected to form the Body of Christ. The macrocosm is embodied in the microcosm. We are blessed to be living in these historic times but more so to be gifted with our Catholic faith. We pray for the cardinals as they seek to fulfill their mission to elect a new pope.