Feb. 27, 2013
Last Papal Audience
To Make an End Is to Make a Beginning
The faithful take pictures as the Popemobile passes through St. Peter’s Square.
Under a cloudless, azure-blue Roman sky with a hint of a chill in the air, Pope Benedict XVI today presided over his last papal audience.
I understood that no tickets would be printed and therefore required. Wrong! But I walked to the Piazza San Pietro with Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth, executive secretary of the International Commission for the English Translation of the Liturgy (housed in D.C.), and his long-time friend, Archbishop Angelo Acerbi, retired Apostolic Nuncio to New Zealand, Columbia, Hungary and the Netherlands. They had no tickets either. The reason? The archbishop said he wanted to be with the people toward the back of the square. An 87-year-old retired nuncio wanted no special treatment. He normally lives in the Santa Marta residence in the Vatican, where the College of Cardinals will live during the conclave. So he had to move out for a time to a residence for priests who work in the Vatican. After the conclave he will move back “home.” No special treatment. Amazing what you learn by example at a papal audience.
We stood not far from where the Popemobile made its rounds toward the back of the square. There had to be 300 flags, banners, and signs, the latter saying “Thank You” in various languages. The Holy Father’s talk was much more personal than usual. He spoke poignantly about the troubles he faced as Pope. He said that he identified with the gospel account of the apostles in the storm-tossed boat wondering if the Lord had abandoned them. The Pope reassured us that it is God’s Church and that he never abandons the bark of Peter. On a crystal-clear sunny day the Pope reminded us of troubled times and that sometimes the Church as the bark of Peter has to sail on troubled seas. Today the bark of Peter has more than its share of barnacles. But the bark of Peter always needs cleansing. The bark of Peter is always the Church being reformed and renewed.
|Top: From left, Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth and Archbishop Angelo Acerbi. Bottom: Monsignor Irwin with Archbishop Acerbi.|
But the Church is always a pilgrim whose collective GPS is God himself, guiding us on our way. We are not in charge. Even a Pope resigns and makes way for another Pope who will be succeeded by another Pope and another ... But the real leader, as the Pope reminded us again today, is God himself.
Also knowing that we are in this together with all the Catholics around the world is the “take-away” from an audience like today’s. The numbers attending the audience today filled the square and beyond. The Pope spoke 10 languages. There were several other nationalities represented. This reflects the tapestry or the patchwork quilt that is the Catholic Church. It is not a monolith. It is not “one size fits all,” but that we together from all five continents are the pilgrim Church on Earth.
So when our personal faith is the size of a mustard seed, it is a consolation that there are others whose faith is like the rock of St. Peter (Mt 16:16-18) who support and pray for us. And when our faith is like the rock of St. Peter we are to hold the hands of those who feel themselves on the brink of drowning in the storm-tossed seas of life today. We are in this together. In this pilgrim Church on Earth.
The weather cooperated, allowing today’s audience to be held outdoors. It made some of us yearn for the Roman spring. It made me pray for a new springtime in the church. As I watched the Holy Father leave the square for the last time, I thought of the words of the Jewish Midrash that note “all beginnings are hard.” A Pope leaving the Vatican. A new Pope to be elected. This Roman spring will be very different indeed. Exciting, yet frankly somewhat scary for the bark of Peter.
But the Pope’s talk also made me reflect on the words of the poet, T. S. Eliot: “To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
And so it starts.