How excited I was to hear those words! I held my infant son in my arms, standing excitedly before the television, watching that upper window with the rest of the world to see who would emerge as the Successor of the Prince of the Apostles. I caught myself on the verge of sobbing several times, so intense was the anticipation. And when Benedict XVI finally emerged into view I dropped to my knees in my living room, trembling with religious excitement.
And the news was no real surprise. It was not, perhaps, what I might have hoped, but even I am unsure what it was I might have hoped for. I feel so distant from the hubbub of ecclesiastical politicking compared to my constant percolation in it of my seminary days, and when I have tried to take an interest in it again I have felt like a man lost in a very familiar but still vaguely distant dream. Certainly Joseph Ratzinger has featured prominently in the pantheon of my Catholic heroes for many years, and during my time in the seminary his name was a litmus test for who was friend or foe in the simmering intramural combat of Church politics.
I distinctly remember a rather frightening evening in a lake cabin, shortly before my first semester of seminary. It was a regular end of summer ritual for the seminarians of the diocese to gather with a few of the younger priests for an informal get-together at the lake. As the newbie, I was meeting most of these men for the first time. I was on my best behaviour, but I had been well-coached by my pastor not to reveal my true (conservative-traditional) views lightly, and I suspected that I was not entirely among friends.
Over a game of cards, the vocation director made a comment that if we needed anything, we had only to ask. One of the seminarians unhesitatingly quipped that he would love to have James Bond’s new BMW, with the machine guns and rocket launchers built in. “Oh, sure,” was the response. “You know, the bishop has one of those. It says ‘Eat this, Ratzinger’ on the front.” General laughter followed.
I was inwardly appalled. I had never before broken bread with “liberal” Catholics, let alone sat up late into the night drinking and playing cards with them. And to hear a priest speak flippantly about the man I saw as one of the champions for the preservation of the Church, well, it was very difficult to make my laughter seem heartfelt.
But that was many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away. I sometimes don’t recognize that skinny young me, sitting at that table laughing nervously. So much has happened in the interim, and the world looks so very, very different. But now I have seen my first conclave, however brief. A new pope holds my fervent allegiance. A baby son looks to me to show him how to be a person of faith. I am a Catholic as I have never been before, and every day finds me taking that Catholic identity more and more seriously. At this rate, I could be a bright young Catholic intellectual before I know it. That is the goal now, and I can hardly wait.