May 4, 2005

‘We Have a Pope!’

The flight to Rome on April 5 was an emotional experience. My priest-secretary and I were on our way to the Eternal City to participate in the funeral of a Successor of St. Peter whom I had known for many years and from whom I had received much kindness, understanding and support.

It was, of course, a sad journey. The sadness, however, was greatly relieved by what had taken place in our beloved St. Patrick’s Cathedral on April 2, 3 and 4. The Holy Father went to his Lord on Saturday, April 2. That evening I celebrated Mass for him at 5:30 in the cathedral. The faithful packed every pew and corner of the edifice. Many were crying, and all were praying with a devotion that was both deep and intense. The same was true of another beautiful Eucharistic celebration on the following Sunday morning at 10:15. Both Masses were televised across the nation and across the world as well. Throughout the next three weeks in Rome, cardinals and total strangers stopped me to say that they had been among the viewers and were most grateful to New York for having provided what one gentleman from Canada described as "solace for the entire Church."

On Sunday afternoon, there was a third Mass at the cathedral for the deceased pontiff. It was in Polish, and I presided. The principal celebrant and homilist was Reverend Krzysztof Wieliczko, O.S.P., a former pastor of St. Stanislaus, B.M., in lower Manhattan, and now the provincial of the Pauline Fathers. The cathedral was packed to capacity. Thus, thousands on Fifth Avenue and on 50th and 51st streets all the way to Madison Avenue had to follow the liturgy over loudspeakers. When the Mass, which was televised live to Poland, was concluded, the congregation, inside and outside, joined in singing Polish hymns, as tears filled the eyes of men, women and children alike.

The following evening I celebrated a fourth Mass in the cathedral for Pope John Paul II, this one in Spanish. As at the other three, the faithful filled St. Patrick’s to overflowing. How these crowds came together, I confess I do not know. There had been no time for proper announcements. The People of God simply came on their own, led by some mysterious grace borne of love. As I settled into my seat on Delta Flight 148, my sorrow was blended with a quiet, peaceful contentment.

When the plane landed, we went directly to St. Peter’s Basilica to kneel close to the mortal remains of the departed Bishop of Rome. Crowds passed by the catafalque on which he lay in two lines, six abreast. Later that evening, at the request of the prefect of the papal household, I returned to St. Peter’s to welcome the President and Mrs. Bush, the former President Bush, the former President Clinton, the secretary of state, and others in the president’s official party.

The next day the work began. There were interviews with the printed media, interviews for radio and television, press conferences along with other American cardinals, and countless meetings and ceremonies that continued until the Funeral Mass on April 8. The principal celebrant for that Mass was, of course, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, His Eminence, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, whose homily was a masterpiece. Never will any who heard it forget the reference to Pope John Paul II watching over his Church from the window of his Father’s house in heaven.

After the Funeral, the cardinals began their formal meetings, which started each day at 9 a.m. and concluded around 1 p.m. They were held in an auditorium attached to the massive Paul VI Audience Hall. All were encouraged to say what was on their minds and in their hearts, with Cardinal Ratzinger wisely and gently presiding. In the afternoons we gathered in St. Peter’s for Masses for the repose of the soul of the deceased pontiff.

For the first of these Masses, the principal celebrant was His Eminence, Francesco Cardinal Marchisano, a dear friend of mine for almost 40 years. His homily was reported on the front pages of all of the Roman newspapers the next morning, so moving was his recollection of a visit to the hospital by Pope John Paul II when the cardinal was about to undergo dangerous surgery. I had dinner with Cardinal Marchisano in his apartment a few nights later and thanked him for telling his story so simply, so humbly and so lovingly.

What transpires in a conclave to elect a pope is not to be shared with anyone. Indeed, each cardinal takes an oath to reveal nothing that is not made public for all without exception. With this in mind, I will mention just one element of the conclave that has special meaning for me and is altogether public as well.

For the elections of Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II, as a judge of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, I was one of the two dozen or so ecclestiastics who stood inside the Sistine Chapel while the cardinals entered in procession to go to their assigned places. When the cardinals are seated and have taken their oaths, the papal master of ceremonies announces in a loud voice, "Extra omnes," that is, "All are to leave"; and all but the cardinals file out, stand beyond the chapel door, and watch the master of ceremonies lock it after he has heard it locked from inside by one of the cardinals.

With me, as we stood outside the chapel for the election of Pope John Paul II, was a fellow judge of the Rota who is now a bishop in southern Italy. "Come along with me," he said, and together we moved through the Hall of Benedictions and down into St. Peter’s Basilica. I followed him into the Chapel of the Eucharist, where the two of us spent a good deal of time in prayer. "As long as we are praying for the conclave," my colleague told me, "we are ‘intra,’ not ‘extra.’ "

Twenty-seven years later, I found myself "intra" after those who were to be "extra" had left. In the light of what I had experienced in St. Patrick’s Cathedral three days before coming to Rome, I had no doubt that there were countless New Yorkers and millions more across the globe who may have seemed to be outside the Sistine Chapel for the election of the pope, but were clearly inside in prayer; and for me knowing this was a source of immense encouragement and consolation.

On Sunday, April 24, a beautiful sunny day after a week of intermittent rain, we processed onto the platform in front of St. Peter’s Basilica for a Mass of Inauguration led by our new pontiff, Benedict XVI, a world-class theologian, an experienced pastor of souls in his native Bavaria and a skilled administrator in the Roman Curia. The cardinals had prayed with him for days in the auditorium attached to the Paul VI Audience Hall, in the "Domus Sanctae Marthae" ("House of St. Martha") in which we had lived together, and in the Sistine Chapel as well. After the election, we had even enjoyed a delightful dinner with him in the "Domus Sanctae Marthae" at which we sang in his honor the lovely prayer, "Oremus pro Pontifice" ("Let Us Pray for Our Pontiff") and the student song, "Ad Multos Annos!" ("May You Prosper for Many Years!"). Nonetheless, the Mass on April 24 outdid all the rest. Like the Funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II, it was a splendid act of worship, made even more splendid by the quiet, prayerful style of the new pontiff.

President Bush and his entourage, Governor Pataki and his entourage, and Mayor Bloomberg and his entourage, had all been present for the Funeral Mass two weeks earlier; for this I was, and continue to be, deeply grateful. All told me in person or in writing how touched they were by the ceremony. They would have been equally delighted with the first public Mass of Pope Benedict XVI. For it swept us all up into a sense of joy and trust in the Lord that I at least shall never forget.

The flight home the next day was altogether different from the flight to Rome. "You cardinals did a great job," a man from New Jersey told me as the two of us were stowing our hand luggage in the overhead bins. "We did indeed," I answered with pleasure and without a moment’s hesitation.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York