A new pope, a (re)new(ed) self

Habe­mus papam!

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.

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