In the papal Conclave underway this week, Cardinal electors have but one central task: to discern the successor of Peter the Holy Spirit has already chosen.
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:31-32)
“The future is ours; the future belongs to God.” (Benedict the Beloved, Pope Emeritus)
I am struggling to write this post. In fact, we very nearly didn’t have one this week. These last two weeks behind prison walls have been for me a crucible of Satanic attacks from all sides. I am simply not made of the stuff of Benedict the Beloved and his predecessors all the way back to Simon Peter. When I am sifted like wheat, I sometimes feel dismay at the ever-growing pile of chaff that remains.
Each day since my post last week has been like walking through a gauntlet. Due to the nature of the place where I must live, I am unable to write openly about some of the more painful days in prison and the sometimes devastating losses we without clear human rights must endure. Suffice it for now to say these losses have been many, and great, and in the last two weeks they have been magnified and deeply felt. Yesterday, I sent a cryptic message to those who help produce These Stone Walls telling them that I don’t think I can write a post for this week.
Yet here I am, writing nonetheless. I wonder if our Pope Emeritus felt so alone and stranded in the days leading up to the painful decision I wrote of in “The Sacrifices of a Father’s Love.” It has been especially difficult for me in these days of hardship and suffering to hear news of factions and the sometimes petty squabbling of Catholic critics who seem far more invested in being critics than in being Catholics.
There is an outside chance that you may see news of white smoke in Saint Peter’s Square this week, possibly even by the time you are reading this post. A part of what I am feeling and going through while writing this is eerily similar to the events of eight years ago, in April of 2005.
That was one of my most trying months in over 18 years of wrongful imprisonment. Just a month or so earlier, I learned that a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the world’s largest newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, had completed a lengthy investigation of my 1994 trial and the charges against me. I knew that the findings were going to be published sometime that April, and I knew it would be a lengthy two-part article about the role played by money – that other American deity – in the claims against me and perhaps some other priests. As one writer put it, “The Journal devoted more space to that story than to any Nobel laureate in history.” I also knew that these articles might be painful for those in the Church tasked with dealing with the crisis in the priesthood.
That was a trying time for me because I did not want to again be a source of pain and scandal for the Church – not even a necessary one. Then, suddenly, Pope John Paul II died. I’m not certain of it, but I have always wondered whether Pope John Paul’s death and the Conclave to follow may have even delayed publication of those explosive Journal articles lest the two Catholic stories collide.
I put the coming articles out of my mind completely as I watched with great sadness, in April, 2005, the Mass of Christian Burial for the Holy Father presided over by his good friend, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. John Paul was elected Pope in the first month of my seminary training, and had been the Church’s Holy Father throughout all the years of my priesthood. As pallbearers lifted his coffin for the last time to descend into the tombs beneath Saint Peter’s, I found myself sobbing for the first time in all my years in prison. I rarely can cry – even when I have good reason, and it’s not just me. Men in prison rarely cry.
I had that same lump in my throat two weeks ago – and so, likely, did most of you – as I watched that helicopter ascend above Saint Peter’s Basilica on February 28, fly across Rome, and out of sight. The most haunting image of all was that of the helicopter bearing our Pope Emeritus above the Roman Colosseum, an image of stark contrast between the time of Caesar and the time of Benedict, and the Church that has lived for all the time in between. Many early Christians sacrificed their lives there in Caesar’s Colosseum that the Church might live. The suffering of Benedict the Beloved hovering over that ancient symbol of Christian sacrifice was overwhelming.
WHITE SMOKE . . . WELL, SORT OF!
Then on April 19, 2005, I was glued to a small TV screen in my prison cell as two men I knew and greatly admired – Cardinal Avery Dulles and Father Richard John Neuhaus – hosted EWTN’s coverage of the Conclave to elect a Pope. There was some confusion. At one point Father Neuhaus declared that the smoke coming from that Sistine Chapel stovepipe was neither black nor white, but a strange shade of gray. Habemus papam? Father Neuhaus wasn’t sure.
That tense moment seemed to stretch on and on. Then the announcement came, and excitement built, and following closely upon it on that April 19, 2005, emerged Pope Benedict XVI to the cheers and joy of millions and the cynical dismay of a few. Those few managed to harness a secular media ever poised to sensationalize darkness and slander. Some of that slander against Pope Benedict was similar in tone and content to that used against another papal predecessor falsely slandered as “Hitler’s Pope.” The Church was persecuted under that and other such slander against Benedict the Beloved for eight years. In spite of all, the legacy of Benedict is his intellectual brilliance. It has been the lampstand in a city on a hill for his entire papacy.
Then, back in April of 2005, just a week after that Conclave ended, The Wall Street Journal published the two-part “A Priest’s Story” that dusted the cobwebs from my trial, convictions and imprisonment, and opened the doors for another view of justice – hopefully by both the State and the Church. The details were not flawless, but the story taken as a whole was vastly unlike anything the secular mainstream media had done to date on the crisis in the priesthood.
These past weeks have so vividly reminded me of that time. I just saw a news headline on ABC News declaring “The next Pope will have weighty issues in the Church to deal with.” Think about that. Could you imagine a news headline declaring that the Pope will NOT have weighty issues to deal with? Has there ever been a time in over two millennia of Church history when the Pope had an easy go of it?
I once wrote in “Inherit the Wind: Pentecost and the Breath of God” that the Church began in scandal while the very first papal act was to defend the Apostles against a slanderous crowd’s claim that they were drunk in public at 9:00 in the morning on a major Jewish feast when the Church was barely ten minutes old (Acts 2: 14-16). It was the same Peter, once called Simon, who was admonished by the Lord that Satan wanted to “sift you like wheat.” It was the same Simon Peter who stepped out of the boat amid the wind and the waves and was admonished by Christ to never again let his faith falter (Matthew 14: 28-30).
It is this same Peter who emerges on the horizon in Rome as a Pope for the New Evangelization. Amid our own wind and waves, and all our anxious cares, he and his successors are the living evidence of something essential for the Church. Pope Benedict concluded in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, through the Cross the path to God is open, and the mission of Peter is to witness to the risen Lord. It was what defined his mission, and shaped the nascent Church.