I was an 11-year-old Southern Baptist when the last Papal Conclave elected Karol Cardinal Wojtyla to be Pope John Paul II. And I remember it clearly. John Paul II went on to become one of my heroes for 2 decades before I ever considered becoming Catholic. He receives much of the credit for helping to inspire my decision to enter the Church.
So, what does this have to do with yesterday's election, over a quarter of a century later, of John Paul II's successor, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI?
My wife and I are relatively new Catholics. And the leadership and influence of the late Holy Father was so much a part of our decision to convert, that his death created for us a profound sense of loss. In short, we were worried about the different direction the Church might take so soon after we had made it our new home.
Sure, we knew that the teachings of the Church are just that - the unchanging teachings of the Church, and do not belong personally to the person occupying the Seat of Peter to change at his whim. But we were nervous nevertheless.
It's funny, though, how all of that seemed to fall away when the white smoke billowed up from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel. All I felt was profound joy, even without knowing who the next Pope would be, at the eternal nature of our Church - at it's ability to continue to renew itself under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And then ... the announcement that our new Pope was His Eminence, Joseph Ratzinger. Wow! Beyond my wildest dreams.
Shortly after the election yesterday, a writer from a national Catholic weekly (no, not the heterodox one) interviewed me, seeking my reaction to the election of the new Pope. I told him what I wrote above. At first, joy at the election of a new pontiff. And then, upon hearing that it was Cardinal Ratzinger ... "Relief."
Relief? What kind of answer is that?
An honest one. As new Catholics, my wife and I weren't interested in a bait-and-switch. We prayed for a new Pope who would follow in the footsteps of John Paul II by providing contintuity with the direction in which he led the Church for over a quarter of a century. Pope Benedict XVI, having served the late Holy Father for most of that time as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, provides the continuity we prayed for.
I am more than a little embarassed at the shallowness of my faith. How would I have reacted had the new Pope come from the "progressive" wing of the College of Cardinals? I hope that I would have remained a faithful Catholic and followed the man elected as the successor to Peter. But I also know that my faith would have been challenged. I hope that I would have risen to that challenge. And I pray that my faith will continue to be strengthened in the future.
Furthermore, I pray for our new Pope Benedict XVI. In his own right. Not as the continuance of the papacy of the late John Paul II, but for his own leadership of our Church as it seeks to navigate a sea of relativity and militant secularism. May God bless you and keep you, Holy Father.