Sunday, February 24, 2013


The professor was talking about the councils of Christian antiquity when the vibrations in my pocket told me that my cell phone had just received a message. Being in class and judging it not to be that urgent, I decided to let it be and see it later. But after five minutes or so curiosity got the better of me and so I glanced at it to see whose message it was. It was from my mom, asking me if it was possible for a pope to resign, since it was on the news that Pope Benedict had just made known his decision to step down. A bit stunned by it, I immediately got into the Internet, trying to see if it were true. It was already about half past twelve in the morning of Monday, February 11, 2013, and I was in the middle of our class in the history of the ecumenical councils of Christian antiquity. The news that I read left me very stunned: the Pope had made known his decision to step down by the end of the month, for reasons of old age, due to which he acknowledged his increasing incapacity to remain in the exercise of his ministry.

The classroom, being situated in the bowels of the building, was usually chilly; the news struck me cold. The professor’s voice became a droning sound in my ears, as I realized that this was something that hasn’t been done for a very long time, and which up until now, though provided for by canon law, was hypothetical, something that the popes of the twentieth century had not done—though contemplated by some—even when the going went rough in the Church.

Certainly the news was a bombshell, which at that moment was making rounds all around the globe. I managed to contain myself up until the end of the class, when I finally got to share the news:“The Holy Father has made known his plan to abdicate”, I said. There was incredulity in everybody’s face. I was afraid for a moment that I wasn’t able to make myself clear; I chose to read the most essential part of the Pope’s address, delivered just that morning. I could barely read it, since I was choked with the emotion of the moment.

Nobody talked of anything else all throughout the day. Once again Pope Benedict has surprised us. They used to speak of Blessed John Paul II as the “Pope of surprises”, but I think this present pontificate that’s about to come to a close has been one full of surprises. But this last surprise has been the most unprecedented one of all, well for the last six hundred years at least.

And so it ends. As we may read and hear a lot of things about the Holy Father during these last days, I was moved to think about my own experience of Benedict XVI. This pontiff was at the helm of a very crucial moment of my young life: he was there as I made the last preparations before getting ordained to the priesthood, and as I made my first steps in the priestly life. He was the Pope of the formative years of my priesthood. Now as he steps down, I’m having a feeling that the curtain is about to be drawn on a certain period in my life. Though the years will have to confirm it still, I have a feeling that the formative years of my early priesthood are coming to a gradual close. It’s coincidental that I was able to witness live that event when, as Pope Benedict XVI, he first stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter’s as Pope, soon after his election; I was then a theology student in the Ecclesiastical Sciences building of the University of Navarra. Years later, more than seven to be exact, in the same building, now as a priest, I came upon the news of his stepping down.

With the shocking news, I returned to that spring day in 2005, the day when this man first entered, shyly though it may seem but with a firm step, into the public spotlight.


The death of Pope John Paul II on the second of April was something that we would certainly never forget. The drama of the endless surge of people coming into St. Peter’s Basilica in order to pay their last respects to a man whose giant figure defined the better part of the last decades of the 20th century, and the huge farewell which was his funeral was still fresh on our minds. Soon after the funeral, the preparations for the conclave began in earnest. For a much younger generation, this was going to be the first experience of transition that we ever had in the Church; it was an exciting time to be in. I considered myself lucky to be closer to Rome those days (relatively closer than I would’ve had I been in the Philippines), and the air of expectation that was building up in Rome was enough to reach us in Spain.

The day the conclave started, I watched the proceedings intently, absorbed in something which up until that time I had only read during my earlier days in the seminary, or watched in some videos about the papacy. We were praying for a short conclave: among other things, the demise of John Paul II really left us feeling orphaned, and it was strange not hearing the name of the Pope being mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer.

The 19th of April started normally enough. Black smoke issued from the famous chimney that had been installed on the roof of the Sistine Chapel by midmorning, announcing that the cardinals had not come up with the election.

At class that afternoon, we were having Sacred Scripture with Don Vicente Balaguer. Owing to the Internet connection that the classroom had (there was no Wifi in those days, unlike now), we had asked the professor if we could keep the screen down in order to monitor the election via on the Vatican website while class was going on. Don Vicente said it was okay, since he himself was anxious to see what the afternoon’s balloting would bring. The period ended with nothing special. The next period was a class on Dogmatics, and we had Don Francisco Lucas Mateo-Seco as our professor. He ordered the screen to lifted and the computer turned off, since this would distract us (and him, presumably) from the class.

Just as the class was about to end, Don Vicente Balaguer went by in order to announce that the chimney had just emitted white smoke. We tried to reconnect with the Vatican website but, as one could suppose, at the same time, millions were trying to do same thing. We weren’t able to have a good connection, but we could see white smoke issuing from the famous iron chimney.

Outside the classroom, there was major pandemonium. Some were undecided whether to go home or wait for the historic announcement that would reveal the new pope’s identity to the world. Some professors were looking for the dean, who later on told them that classes were suspended for the afternoon. A group—myself included—crowded into a small room with an equally small television set which at the moment lacked an antenna for it to function well. Somebody produced a fountain pen, which served considerably well for the purpose. Everybody was tense; in the images broadcasted from St. Peter’s Square we could see the crowd increasing by the minute. People were flocking to the square—some were running—and soon the place was jam-packed with people. The excitement in the square seemed to ooze into the room where we stood. Minutes later, the glass doors of the central balcony of the fa├žade of the great basilica opened, and the same ceremonial played out several times before in the past was once enacted before our very eyes.

Habemus Papam!” was the announcement that elicited shouts of joy and revelry from the crowd far below the balcony, something duplicated in all parts of the world. We erupted in cheers when we heard that. It’s quite amusing to consider the thought that we all knew what the cardinal proto-deacon had to say, and yet it was as if we were hearing it for the first time.

When Cardinal Medina-Estevez mentioned the name Josephum, it dawned on us that it had to be Ratzinger, something that was confirmed after a few moments. The good cardinal knew how to elicit suspense from the world audience, which practically breathless until he said Ratzinger! with flourish.

The crowd went bonkers, unbelievably, at least for me at that time. I wasn’t familiar with this German cardinal until after the death of Pope John Paul, and I had images of a stern, disciplinarian cardinal in my mind, partly fed by mainstream media. But the death and funeral of the great pope—now his successor—had relayed a different image of Ratzinger, as well as more of his brilliance and deep spirituality, thanks to the homilies that he had delivered during the papal funeral and the Mass before the conclave began.

But the crowd went crazy with joy, despite of that picture. We had a pope, and we weren’t orphans anymore. I believe that was the general feeling at that moment. It didn’t matter if he was German or that he was likened to a German shepherd.

The name that the new pope chose—Benedict—was another surprise. The last time any pope had used that name was not too far away in history: in 1914. Despite of what his figure meant in the history of the Church in the 20th century, which was certainly great, Pope Benedict XV was never well-known, and this perhaps because he was overshadowed by the equally gigantic figures of the other popes and the fact of two great world wars.

It’s interesting to note how the acceptance of a great responsibility could change a person almost instantaneously. There was certainly something different about Ratzinger—now Benedict XVI—when he emerged. In this first meeting with the world, he stepped a bit timidly into the balcony, but that timidity remained only for a moment; what we began to see was a man who had placed everything into the hands of God.

When the Apostolic Blessing had been imparted, and the classes having been suspended, I started the long walk home. As I crossed the university campus, I could hear the bells of the city ring in jubilation. I was smiling as I walked.

That evening, we celebrated solemn Vespers with the Blessed Sacrament exposed; the Te Deum was sung. Everyone was in a festive mood. 

 (to be continued...)


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