Through the Cross


Habemus Papam! Only after two days of voting, white smoke flowed from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican signaling the successful conclusion of a papal conclave. The 115 cardinals after five balloting have elected Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, the Buenos Aires-born son of a railway worker. This 76-year old Jesuit now becomes the 266thinfallible leader of the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide taking the name Pope Francis. The Successor of Peter is a sign that despite “rough seas,” Christ did not leave the boat. The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit.
 When he stepped forward on the balcony in front of St. Peter’s Square, a huge roar greeted him. The excited crowd chanted “Long live the Pope!” His first appearance dazed everyone including himself. “You know the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome,” he said, and then laughing: “It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the earth. But here we are. Thank you for the welcome.”
          His election came as a big surprise. It was the first time many heard of him. But the news of a Latin American Pope was greeted with wild enthusiasm especially in his native Argentina.  Among the crowd, Rafael Duno, a 22-year-old student from Venezuela said: “I hope it’ll be a good change for the church, a chance for another reality.” Raffaele Esposita, an Italian bricklayer looks hopeful with this outcome: “Now we hope for a good pope and a strong pope – most of all strong. It doesn’t matter where he’s from – Italian, white, Asian, whatever. What matters is that there is renewal.” The world’s Catholics look up to the Pope for inspiration, guidance and leadership. Even the choice of his name is a harbinger. He wants to steer the Church towards simplicity, prayer and closeness to the people. He knew that to become Pope he needs much faith because he will also suffer much to carry the burden of the world.
Pope Benedict XVI made a shocking decision to step down from the papacy because of his frail health. He announced his intention in Latin during the meeting of cardinals citing that he did not have the “strength of mind and body” to continue leading the Church. The news stunned the Christian world. He is the only Pope to quit for health reasons which makes his decision unusual. This prompted people to speculate that there may be a more sinister reason for the move. And by coincidence, lightning struck the basilica of St. Peter’s Dome on the same day the pope announced his resignation.
          Yet the difficult decision was made after repeatedly examining his conscience. “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only by words and deeds but no less with prayer and suffering.” Thus he recognized his incapacity to adequately fulfill his job. He himself has previously stated that Popes who are unable to do their job because of ill health should step down. According to his brother, Georg Ratzinger, he has been considering stepping down for some time because he has been having difficulty walking and his age was weighing him down.
          Before becoming Pope in 2005, he said he had prayed not to get the post and was hoping for a peaceful old age. This former theology professor is a shy man after all who just wanted to fade in the limelight. His act of resignation is a lesson of humility and selflessness. A lot of people admire his decision of stepping down as “brave” and “courageous.” With the emergence a new spiritual shepherd of the Church, the Emeritus Pope will retire in a monastery and lose all his emblems of authority. Though old and ailing, he will still support the Church whom he loves with prayers, silent witness and personal sufferings. 
          In writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks of how he is afflicted in every way, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, always carrying in his body the death of Jesus (cf. 2 Cor 4:8-10). In a mysterious way, all believers when we suffer, we participate in the saving act of redemption. This is not because Christ did not do all he needed to do, but rather He allows us to participate in the salvation of the world. Suffering then, is not meaningless but redemptive. The act of self-oblation of Jesus on the cross to the Father for others is the way to redemption. Through it, the Church also becomes a sign of Christ’s salvation. Cardinal Henri de Lubac wrote that “If the world lost the Church, it would lose the Redemption too, for she alone communicates God’s grace to us.” But to be an effective instrument of grace it must return to its source – the cross of Christ! 
(This article also appears in Cebu Daily News, March 17, 2013)

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