10 years ago: the election of Benedict XVI

Ten years ago on this very day, I was a sophomore at a Catholic high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was a normal Tuesday morning (California time), meaning that I had my Italian class in the first period, followed by Religion (regrettably not called “Theology”). It was the second day of the 2005 conclave.

My Italian teacher, by far the most faithful and orthodox Catholic on the faculty, streamed a live video feed of the Sistine Chapel chimney from his computer, orienting the screen toward the students so the we could see if smoke emerged. Meanwhile, the teacher went on with the lesson on the subjunctive mood, if I recall correctly– I really didn’t pay attention since my eyes were glued on the computer screen. I lost track of time when suddenly, I discerned the faintest wisps sputtering from the chimney. I waited a few seconds to ensure that it wasn’t an illusion caused by server lag or the poor resolution, but the vapors– tiny though they were– billowed continuously yet slowly. “Smoke!”, quoth I. Everybody’s eyes turned to the screen. My surprised teacher ceased his lesson and ran the live feed on the large projector screen. We waited patiently for an announcement. It was a cloudy afternoon in Rome, and there was some debate regarding the color of the smoke. Further compounding our ignorance, the bells of St. Peter remained silent. The wait grew longer and longer, until we finally heard a bell– the school bell signaling us to change classes.

Off I went to Religion class. By now, news of the smoke had spread through the school, and our religion teacher had NBC’s live coverage on the television. The result was still unclear since the bells had not yet tolled, but from what we could see, the gray wisps had transformed into a steady stream of white. Finally the bells of the Vatican Basilica began to peal, to the delight of people in the City and in the world.

My religion teacher was a typical West Coast Catholic educator, completely ignorant– likely through no fault of her own– of the breadth and depth of the Catholic tradition (a master’s degree in religious education from Gonzaga notwithstanding). She is a product of the Novus Ordo experiment. Certainly she knew little about the papabili or of any Cardinal at all, and what little she did know smacked of the murky hermeneutics of left-vs.-right, fed to her by a mainstream media which itself understands little about the Church. As Cardinal Medina-Estevez appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s to make the announcement according to the old Latin formula, she said aloud in a desperate tone, “If it’s Ratzinger, I’m going to cry!” I smiled when I heard this, and– under my breath– I counseled her to grab some Kleenex.

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: habemus Papam! Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Josephum…

Cardinal Medina-Estevez paused, for the elation of the crowd interrupted him once more. I too, knowing that my teacher was about to eat her words, jumped out of my seat and yelled a triumphant “YES!” with my fists in the air.

…Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem…

and with an emphatic pause followed by an emphatic pronunciation, the Cardinal Protodeacon made it official:


Immediately the cameras turned to the crowd, whose vociferous exuberance was now visible to all the world. In retrospect, the crowd’s outburst in 2005 was far more raucous than the reaction in 2013, when Cardinal Tauran pronounced the name “Bergoglio” to hushed incredulity. In 2005, Medina-Estevez had to wait quite a while for the crowd to quiet down before revealing the new Pontiff’s regnal name.

…qui sibi nomen imposuit Benedicti XVI

To my teacher’s credit, over the next few weeks, she came to realize that, like so many American Catholics, she had rushed to a negative judgment of the new Pontiff. His many addresses and homilies associated with his ascension to Peter’s cathedra broke the perception of the stern German Panzerkardinal, while the caricature “God’s rottweiler” gave way to the image of a German shepherd. His clarity of thought, his charitable method of expression, his eloquence, his soft voice, and his closeness to his predecessor John Paul II all communicated a kindness which, for a time, banished the negative stereotypes of “arch-conservative” and “doctrinal enforcer”. Benedict showed a very human side, a meekness not unknown to those who were actually familiar with the man; truly he was that semplice e umile lavoratore nella vigna del Signore.Mere weeks prior to the conclave, I had read Cardinal Ratzinger’s famous 1985 interview with Vittorio Messori, published in English as The Ratzinger Report. Following that, I dove into his magnificent Spirit of the Liturgy. These works began for me a love affair with theology that has never lost its freshness; without them, I would have never studied theology, nor would I have taken my faith seriously in later years. In subsequent years, I devoured every single one of his books that I could find. Cardinal Ratzinger’s works put into vivid relief all my apprehension and anxiety about the modern liberal Catholicism that permeated my childhood– a Catholicism that did not seem to take itself seriously; a Church all-too-ready to accommodate modernity; a laity ignorant of its heritage; a faith that seemed to seek answers in secular society, not in its robust cultural and intellectual patrimony.

Before I encountered Ratzinger’s works, I had not the words to express why I was so disillusioned with the strange liturgical practices in my home parish. After familiarizing myself with his theological corpus, I at last found solid footing; I gained some semblance of a conceptual framework to help me articulate what I had for so long felt in my heart. More importantly, he illuminated for me the correct way to understand the Second Vatican Council, a council so often cited and twisted in order to justify unwarranted practices and strange doctrinal errors. For the first time, I could recognize that the doctrine of the Church cannot be located on a left-right spectrum; rather, I realized that the truth– Catholic truth– is far too sublime, far too coherent, far too magnificent to be pigeonholed into the categories of secular politics. Our faith is in a league of its own. I was born in 1989; I therefore cannot recall the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of European communism. I knew that John Paul II was a great and holy man, but I had no immediate sense of his historical import as did the preceding generation; Joseph Ratzinger, whom I watched deliver the magnificent funeral oration for John Paul II, was thus my first true ecclesiastical “hero”.

Despite anxieties among secularized American Catholics about the rise of the “arch-conservative” Ratzinger, the Bavarian’s ascent seemed as smooth and natural as a royal primogeniture succession. The laconic Roman phrase morto un Papa, se ne fa un’altro came especially true in this instance as Ratzinger, who as Cardinal Dean was the face of the Church through the interregnum, once more stood before the world– the only difference was that, this time, he traded the sacra porpora for papal white. Prominent Italian journalist Bruno Vespa called the election un segno di grande continuità, while John Allen opined that the Cardinal-electors consciously chose a man “who would not be crushed by the weight of comparison to John Paul II”. And yet, while acknowledging his close connection to Papa Wojtyla, Benedict XVI would come into his own in the munus Petrinum, leaving his own unique legacy for the Church.

In a few short years, he became the Pope who bestowed on us the great encyclicals Caritas in veritate, Deus Caritas est, and Spe salvi. In the realm of true ecumenism, Anglicanorum coetibus would become his signature achievement. For those who rightly decried the modern Church’s rift with the ancient liturgical tradition, Summorum Pontificum is a reason for unceasing gratitude. He posed with great courage in the magnificent yet oft-maligned Regensburg Lecture a coherent discourse on the relation between faith and reason, science and religion, culture and history, Christianity and Islam. Perhaps most importantly, Benedict XVI became the Pope who, in his magisterial 2005 Christmas discourse to the Curia, canonized the “hermeneutic of reform in continuity” as the interpretive key to the Second Vatican Council, condemning at the same time the “hermeneutic of rupture” which saw in the Council a damnatio memoriae of the Church’s venerable past.

But all that would come later.

When Cardinal Medina-Estevez pronounced Josephum to the world, I knew right away that my hero, Cardinal Ratzinger, had ascended to the Supreme Pontificate. The man who delivered the masterful and moving funeral oration for John Paul II now took his place ad Petri cathedram. All my respect and admiration for him and all my thanksgiving for his theological works went into my reaction as I jumped out of my seat and yelled, “YES!”.

For all these reasons, I will always look fondly upon 19 April 2005.

Gratias tibi agimus, Domine, pro omnibus beneficiis quae in tua bonitate ad utilitatem plebis tuae ei concessisti.

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