Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation Feb. 28 opened the “sede vacante” period in the church. This interregnum, i.e., “between reigns” of popes, is overseen by a camerlengo or “chamberlain” who safeguards the temporal goods and rights of the church. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone is serving in that role, in which he works with three other cardinals.

Milwaukee-based seminarian Nathan Miniatt and newly ordained Fr. Jacob Strand are in Rome witnessing the transition.

Standing with Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan on the rooftop of the Pontifical North American College while Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI flew to Castel Gandolfo in his helicopter is something Miniatt will not forget.

“I feel very blessed to be in Rome during this time. I was particularly moved as I attended each of the last public appearances of Pope Benedict XVI’s Wednesday audience and Sunday Angelus,” he said. “I have a great love and respect for him as a humble man who is at the same time a brilliant scholar and leading theologian of our day.”

Praise for Pope Benedict

Miniatt said Pope Benedict worked tirelessly for unity and reconciliation within the church and reminded followers not to forget the history and tradition of the church.

“He gave his entire life in selfless service of the church, and his final days will be no exception as he devotes them to prayer,” said Miniatt. “It was difficult to see him resign, but at the same time I trust that he was being led by the Holy Spirit speaking in the depths of his conscience, since he is a man who is deeply in touch with God.”

After the pope’s resignation, Miniatt visited with Cardinal James M. Harvey, prefect of the papal household until last Nov. 24 when he was elevated into the College of Cardinals. Cardinal Harvey told him he believes the legacy of Pope Benedict will be one of a great catechist.

“The pope at his core was always a simple Bavarian priest, though, at the same time, a genius, and he taught the faithful of the church with a simple, yet profound catechesis as a result,” said Miniatt, paraphrasing Cardinal Harvey’s comments.

In his third year of theology studies, Miniatt is scheduled to be ordained a transitional deacon in October and is scheduled to be ordained a priest in May 2014. Despite the congregational meetings for the cardinals, and the conclave, life continues more or less as normal for Miniatt and his brother seminarians.

“We still have class every day and the normal formational expectations at the seminary,” he said. “The ‘Eternal City’ has certainly kept going through many years of history, and our own days are no exception.”

‘Privileged opportunity’ for reflection

Fr. Strand said being a young priest anywhere in the world is an unfathomable gift, but he noted there is something unique about spending a majority of his first year of priesthood in Rome.

“At our priesthood ordination, my classmates and I promised to be ‘united more closely everyday … to Christ who offered himself as a pure sacrifice,’” he said. “Here in Rome, the powerful witnesses of the martyrs’ beautiful ‘yes’ to Jesus daily reminds me what this daily offering entails.”

During this period where the Chair of St. Peter is vacant, Fr. Strand recognizes the church is not something man has constructed or can control. In his final Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict stated, “The church is not mine, not ours, but his – and he shall not let her sink.”

“During this time of transition, we all have a privileged opportunity to reflect on the church. Obviously, great efforts are being made to elect the new pope, emphasizing the importance of the magesterium and the Petrine ministry,” Fr. Strand said. “However, because the Holy Spirit principally leads the church, we also recognize that the church is alive in the hearts of every believer.”

With this vacancy and the unusual circumstances surrounding it, Fr. Strand has sensed a deeper calling to prayer.

“The prayer of every believer contributes to the lifeblood of the church,” he explained. “This necessary dimension of our lives as Christians firmly grounds us in the Body of Christ thereby permitting us, during this time of Lent and this time of transition, to keep our eyes fixed firmly upon Christ, who is our head.”

Routine remains for students

As did Miniatt, Fr. Strand, who is completing his license in sacred theology at the Institute of John Paul II for Marriage Family Studies, watched from the top of the Pontifical North American College as Pope Benedict flew to Castel Gandolfo – something he termed “surreal.”

While the world waited for the results of the conclave, which began Tuesday, March 12, Fr. Strand admitted that for the students, the daily routine continues as usual, despite the air of expectation that pervades each moment of the day.

“When will the next pope be elected? Who will it be,” are questions, he said, that everyone is pondering. “Although these questions are natural and to be expected, the more important task is to trust and pray, during this Year of Faith, for a firmer belief in God whose providence lovingly directs the life of the church, which includes each of our own lives, too.”

Fr. Strand often encounters young American Catholics in Rome as they come to study or vacation. Each time he witnesses their deep love for Christ and the church, he is impressed.

“Likewise, they all highly esteem the papacy and quickly fall in love with the pope, whoever it is,” he said. “Knowing that the man whom they see come out of his office window at noon every Sunday to pray the Angelus with thousands of pilgrims is actually the successor of St. Peter himself assures young Catholics of the solid foundation of the faith.”