Many of us are still feeling shell-shocked from the extraordinary news of the Holy Father’s abdication. On Thursday 28th February, from 8pm Roman time (7pm here), we shall have entered that disconcerting period when the Holy See of Rome is sede vacante, or deprived of an incumbent. Without the customary lying-in-state and the funeral rites for a deceased pontiff to provide any distraction, a great section of the media will then be working itself into an unprecedented frenzy of speculation regarding the likely identity of the next Pope and the ‘qualities’ he will need to satisfy its insatiable appetite for secularism and for the dissolution of Christian civilization.

Reactions amongst decent people to the news of the Holy Father’s decision to renounce the Papacy have ranged from trust and understanding to sadness and dismay. At the Oratory, however, there is one sentiment that seems to be universal among the faithful who worship with us: a very deep love and affection for the person of Pope Benedict XVI. 

One Oratory parishioner, Anna Arco, made the following observation in the Catholic Herald:

He was a brave strong man who faced horrible attacks and media storms. He didn’t grovel like most politicians, but would wait to speak, and usually say something different – something worth listening to that would diffuse the situation. He was not a slick media operator or a cold manager or icy prince of the Church, but a genuine priest, a great theologian, a pastor who loved his flock. Everything he said or did comes out of an understanding of reality and human frailty, but with a belief also in the framework of the religion, and is coloured by love. 

Meanwhile Thomas Pascoe wrote in the Daily Telegraph:

When a great man departs from public life, we are all diminished. The Church has lost a brave, wise and good leader, and the faithful have lost an able shepherd. Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Church stood firm as a rock while battered more fiercely than at any time in its history by the swirling seas of secular fashion and its bilious hatred for a hard truth. Atheists will focus on Benedict’s employment of double effect when it came to condoms for sex workers or to his intransigence on traditional mores. They miss the point. Benedict’s contribution to intellectual life was to point out that secular liberal life owes its most precious dogmas of individual value to its heritage in Christian theology. It owes its nastiness (just look at Twitter today) to the absence of Christian love. This is a desperately sad day.

Between them these two statements must contain some of the truest and most poignant words written about a Pontiff who will be greatly missed by those of us who have rejoiced with him during the triumphs of his reign, and also suffered with him when he was under siege.

At the beginning of Lent we were all encouraged to ‘give something up’, as well as praying and giving alms. If we have not yet done so, then we could all profit from giving up reading the endless commentaries by the self-appointed pundits who will have made themselves ‘experts’ on the proceedings of the coming Conclave. We should also avoid making experts of ourselves. It is enough that the next successor of St Peter should be Catholic, holy, wise and strong. We should put all of our energies into praying for a candidate who has been endowed with these qualities and leave the rest to God.

Only slightly less annoying than the predictable speculation on ‘Vatican power struggles’ are the pious platitudes that tend to emerge around the time of a Conclave: “Oh Father, we can relax. It’s the Holy Spirit who will choose the new Pope.” No. It is actually the cardinals who will elect the Pope, and the College of Cardinals is a fallible group of fallible men.

Our Holy Father St Philip Neri lived through fifteen papacies, and the incumbents of the See of Peter during this period made up a mixed bag, to put it politely. While one of them was a canonised saint and some were great reformers, others have provided historians with a less edifying material for their narrative. It is hard to imagine that the Holy Ghost can have had much positive input into the election of Pope Julius III, for example. 

So no, ‘relaxing’ in the sense of indifferent passivity is not really a sensible option in the current circumstances. Instead we should, in the words of St Paul, “Pray without ceasing.” During this season of Lent, we have the opportunity to fortify our intercessions with fasting and almsgiving. Conversion of heart, penance and, above all good works, will infuse our prayers with the sweet incense of charity that makes them acceptable and even invincible at the Throne of Grace. In this way, we all have a role of active participation to play in the Conclave. We can assume that God would love to bless His Church with another holy Pope; but He desires for us to co-operate with His design by praying and offering our own sacrifices with that intention.

The morning after the news of the Pope’s abdication, the newspapers carried unsettling pictures of lightning tearing through the sky and hitting the cross and the orb above the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.  The two lightning strikes occurred just a few hours after the Pope’s announcement, and this is apparently an event so rare that no photographs of it happening previously seem to exist in the public domain. What can it possibly have meant?

The Provost of this Oratory has not been invested with extraordinary prophetic powers, and his knowledge of geophysics is slight; so anything that he might have to say on the subject of thunderbolts might safely be taken with a scruple-spoonful of blessed and exorcised salt. But please allow him to offer a thought: another occasion on which thunder and lightning hammered and crashed around St Peter’s Basilica, to the extent that some of those inside feared for their safety, was 18th July 1870. 

The storm on that occasion seems to have signified something very positive, as it occurred during that tumultuous session of the First Vatican Council when the fathers finally voted in favour of the solemn definition of the Dogma of Papal Infallibility. This beautiful Article of the Faith has shed its illumination like a blazing light in the firmament of Catholic doctrine ever since. At the same time, however, we should perhaps note that its proclamation was a major contributory factor in provoking Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, in which many of Germany’s Catholics had to endure an ugly period of government-sponsored persecution.

One interpretation that can safely be put on this month’s lightning strike is that it is a reminder, in a world that is always looking for signs, of God’s Presence and of His power in the world and especially in His Church. During his beautiful sermon at the Mass of his Installation on 24th April 2005, our gentle Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI touched all of our hearts when he asked us: “Please pray for me that I shall not flee for fear of the wolves.” If there are any of those wolves still lurking in the shadows, then perhaps they should take that lightning as a warning to clear off. And if that lightning raises our attention away from the newspapers and towards Heaven – if it encourages us to lift our hearts and minds to God, and to offer Rosaries, litanies and novenas for the election of a new Pope during the coming days – then it will have served a good purpose.

May God bless His Holiness, our beloved Pope Benedict XVI. May God save and protect His Holy Church.