I think it would be fair to say the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation dropped a bombshell on the Roman Catholic Church worldwide. No one, except for maybe a small group of close friends and cardinals, saw this coming.
Benedict is the first pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415. However, other members of Church hierarchy forced Gregory to resign. You have to go back to Celestine V in 1294 to find a pope who last gave up his position willingly.
Plenty of commentators have been debating the pope’s legacy and the issues he has faced during the eight years of his papacy – everything from the clergy abuse scandal to “Vatileaks.”
As for me, I’ll always remember being a short distance away from Benedict during a memorable weekend in New York City.
I was a junior in high school during the spring when the pope visited New York. Our school received 17 tickets for the papal Mass, available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Many of my friends instead decided to go on our school’s annual mission trip to New York earlier in the year.
But for me, the decision was a no-brainer. I put my deposit down and secured my spot for the trip. To say I was excited was an understatement.
Before Benedict’s visit, the last time the pope visited the U.S. was 1999, when John Paul II visited St. Louis. I figured that the trip was a great opportunity to see the pope celebrate Mass and share in a memorable experience. I had never been to the Big Apple before, so this trip also let me explore a new place.
Our group stayed in a hostel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for the duration of our trip. But we didn’t spend much time there. When we arrived, we wanted to go see the city, and we got the chance on our first day.
The next day, we took the subway to the Bronx and walked to the old Yankee Stadium, where the papal Mass was taking place. Nearly 60,000 of us crammed into the old stadium, eager to share in this incredible moment.
When he came out in his “popemobile” from the outfield, the stadium went crazy. We were all given white or yellow towels to wave as he made his way slowly along the outer edges of the field. His hand constantly waved to the boisterous crowd as he made his way to the altar.
Our view of the Mass, unfortunately, was through a video screen the whole time. We called the outfield bleachers home for the next few hours. The altar had a back wall, so we couldn’t actually see the pope hold Mass. But there was a plus side to our seats: We had all of the media behind us. When I came back from New York, someone said they saw me on CNN.
Today, the pope will abdicate his place as leader of the Roman Catholic Church and retire to a small monastery in Vatican City. We’ll wait throughout the conclave period for the white smoke and the words, “Habemus Papam!” (We have a pope!)
Questions continue to swirl regarding the legacy of Benedict’s papacy. Should he be defined by the events that took place during his time as pope? Do his views shape how we’ll remember him? Does his resignation – the first in 602 years – mark his papacy? I’ll let the commentators and scholars answer those questions.
As for me, I want to remember Pope Benedict XVI for the moment in history he shared with me and countless thousands of other Catholics on that beautiful Sunday in April.