Since hearing the shocking news of Pope Benedict’s resignation I, along with millions of others, have been flooded with mixed emotions. Sadness, fear, hope, and even excitement at some of the leading contenders to replace him. Mostly, though, I feel a sense of loss. As a “JPII baby”, I have been blessed with a deep sense of connection with the pope as my father. As our father. I read a great Catholic News Agency interview with Scott Hahn today, who explains the reality of this connection more poignantly than I ever could:
“It’s a hard thing to explain to outsiders, the mystery of a family bond that we all share, and how deeply we feel it. But here is a man who is a father figure to us all, and not just in a kind of symbolic way, but inasmuch as we are really united in a new birth, and the flesh and blood of the Eucharist, and this man, we know him to be our father, even more than our natural dads at one level.”
A little background on my own connection with our Pope as father. I was born in 1978, the year Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. He was pope for the first 27 years of my life, and I grew to love him. The summer between my first and second years in college, my father, who had been straying from the Church, told me out of the blue that he was paying for me to go to World Youth Day. It was clear to me that this was the work of the Holy Spirit. During this trip, I saw the Pope for the first time ever. I was touched deeply. Even though I had never met him, nor did I have the opportunity to do so, I knew he loved me and prayed for me as his daughter.
During college, I felt God was calling me to study Theology. I began to take a deep interest in the works of Karol Wojtyla and the many papal documents he wrote as Pope John Paul II. I also discovered the works of a fellow named Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who I thought was brilliant. Little did I know what God had in store for him and the Church.
I returned to school after graduating college and found myself enrolled in the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, more commonly known as the “JPII Institute.” There I became more deeply immersed in the writings of many of our past popes and also some present cardinals, including both Cardinals Ratzinger and Scola (a top contender to succeed Pope Benedict XVI). In 2005, my final year at the JPII Institute, Pope John Paul II passed from this life to the next, and my sense of being a daughter of the Pope deepened.
When Pope JPII died, in the midst of my great sadness, I almost immediately felt his presence and love with me. I KNEW he was in heaven interceding in a most powerful way for the then shepherd-less Church militant he had physically left behind. As my classmates and I watched a small TV in the Dominican House of Studies for the color of the smoke, I somehow knew all along that it would be alright. The right pope would be elected, and the right pope was. Although very different in personality from the pope the world had become accustomed to, his love and message were right there where they needed to be. Perhaps the secular media’s hatred of him is evidence of this reality, but that’s another conversation for another time.
Just as I felt the comfort of John Paul II’s presence in 2005 I feel it again now with Pope Benedict. I know that his decision to step down was one born of deep prayer, and I sense that now that he has announced that decision, his prayer is bearing fruit in a special way. The Holy Spirit is with the Church, and with each of us as her daughters and sons. Through the intercession of our Popes in the Church Triumphant, and the prayers of our father Pope Benedict XVI, the next successor to St. Peter will be the right one. Farewell Papa.