There were many moving and dramatic moments in Rome two days ago, but this is the one I think I’ll remember: the sight of them running.
Did you see them running to St. Peter’s Square as the bells began to toll?
They came running in from the offices and streets of Rome, running in their business suits, in jeans with backpacks over their shoulders. The networks kept showing it in their wide shots as they filled time between the ringing of the bells and the balcony scene.
So many came running that by the end, by the time Benedict XVI was announced, St. Peter’s and the streets leading to it were as full as they’d been two weeks ago, at the funeral of John Paul II.
Why did they run? Why did this ancient news—”We have a pope”—representing such irrelevant-seeming truths and such an archaic institution—send them running?
Why did they gather? Why did they have to hear?
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The faith is dead in Europe, everyone knows that. So why did they come?
You say, “They just wanted to be there. It’s history. People are experience junkies. They wanted to take pictures with their cell phones.”
That would be true of some. But why did so many weep as the new pope came out? Why did they chant “Benedict, Benedict” as he stood at the balcony? Why were they jubilant?
Why were so many non-Catholics similarly moved? And why in America, where the church is torn in divisions, did people run to the TV and the radio when word spread?
People are complicated. You can hit distracted people with all the propaganda in the world, you can give it to them every day in all your media, and sometimes they’ll even tell pollsters they agree with you. But something is always going on in their chests. Some truth is known there; some yearning lives there. It’s like they have a compass in their hearts and turn as they will, this way and that, it continues to point to true north.
We want a spiritual father. We want someone who stands for what is difficult and right, what is impossible but true. Being human we don’t always or necessarily want to live by the truth or be governed by it. But we are grateful when someone stands for it. We want him to be standing up there on the balcony. We want to aspire to it, reach to it, point to it and know that it is there.
Because we can actually tell what’s true.
We can just somehow tell.
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John Paul II was a great man. We all knew that. Funny how we all knew. And so when word spread that he was dead, they came running.
And because they came running, because four million people engulfed Rome after his death, the eyes of the world were suddenly trained on John Paul’s funeral, which was suddenly an event.
Because the world watched the funeral, they noticed the man who celebrated the mass and gave the eulogy. John Paul II had picked him for that role. He spoke with love. He said John Paul, the old man who always came to the window to greet the crowds and pray with them, was now, today, right at this moment, at the window of his father’s house. It was beautiful and poetic and people—cardinals—who watched and listened to the speaker thought: Yes, that’s true. And the man who was speaking, who even 10 years ago was considered too old and controversial for the job, was suddenly seen by his fellow cardinals, one after the other, as the future pope.
It was impossible. But it happened. No one was really considering Cardinal Ratzinger until that mass.
Those who are pursuing John Paul II’s canonization, please note: his first miracle is Benedict XVI.
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We are living in a time of supernatural occurrences. The old pope gives us his suffering as a parting gift, says his final goodbye on Easter Sunday; dies on the vigil of Feast of the Divine Mercy, the day that marks the messages received by the Polish nun, now a saint, who had written that a spark out of Poland would light the world and lead the way to the coming of Christ. The mourning period for the old pope ends on the day that celebrates St. Stanislas, hero of Poland, whose name John Paul had thought about taking when he became pope. We learned this week from a former secretary that John Paul I, the good man who was pope just a month, had told everyone the day he was chosen that he wanted to be called John Paul I. You can’t be called “the first” until there is a second, he was told. There will be a second soon, he replied.
It is an age of miracles and wonders, of sightings of Mary and warnings, of prophecy, graces and gifts.
The choosing of Benedict XVI, a man who is serious, deep and brave, is a gift. He has many enemies. They imagine themselves courageous and oppressed. What they are is agitated, aggressive, and well-connected.
They want to make sure his papacy begins with a battle. They want to make sure no one gets a chance to love him. Which is too bad because even his foes admit he is thoughtful, eager for dialogue, sensitive, honest.
They want to make sure that when he speaks and writes, the people of the world won’t come running.
What to do to help? See his enemies for what they are, and see him for what he is. Read him—he is a writer, a natural communicator of and thinker upon challenging ideas. Listen to him. Consult your internal compass as you listen, and see if it isn’t pointing true north.
Look at what he said at the beginning of the papal conclave: It is our special responsibility at this time to be mature, to believe as adults believe. “Being an ‘adult’ means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today’s fashions or the latest novelties.” Being an adult is loving what is true and standing with it.
This isn’t radical, or archconservative. And the speaker isn’t an enforcer, a cop or a rottweiler. He’s a Catholic. Which one would think is a good thing to have as leader of the Catholic Church.