What I Have Seen and Heard
Published: February 28, 2013
As of this Thursday afternoon, I now will have witnessed six vacancies of the See of St. Peter in my own lifetime.
In 1958 I viewed the first. I was at the time a newly enrolled sixth-grader in a Catholic school on the South Side of Chicago with only about five weeks’ familiarity with the Catholic Church when as a result of the death of Pope Pius XII the Cardinals of the Church were brought together to select his successor. I vividly can recall the grainy black and white television broadcasts of the preparations for the conclave and the eventual appearance of Blessed Pope John XXIII on the loggia of St. Peter’s. As a 10-year-old youngster with almost no Catholic background, the significance of the events was largely unappreciated, but even then the international excitement was obvious.
With the second vacancy that I experienced, as a sophomore at the high school seminary in June of 1963, I was much more fully cognizant of the activities the death of Pope John XXIII would introduce before the world. The media had become much more sophisticated in the intervening five years of Pope John’s pontificate, and the improved television images of the events reflected those technological advances. Many more commentators brought the process closer to the public as I recall, and the broadcast quality coverage of the conclave of 1963 was much better. I can remember running to my parish church on June 21 to attend the 6:30 a.m. Mass with the news of the election of Giovanni Battista Montini as Pope Paul VI—the priests at my home parish already knew—media was much faster then! They did not depend upon a panting 15-year-old to break those details to them.
The third vacancy happened when I was a young priest and had then lived in Rome for two years when Pope Paul VI died. I had been in the presence of this pope and watched him as he aged. Unluckily I had just returned home to Chicago when the news of his death was flashed across the world on Aug. 6. I thought to myself that I must have the worst luck in the world to be at home when this international event occurred. Rome in August is in vacation mode, and many of the Romans had already quietly headed toward the beach or the mountains for holiday—or back to the U.S. for a home visit.
The preparations for the first of the 1978 conclaves were broadcast, and I could recognize the places and many of the personalities that were then televised. I was absolutely crestfallen to think that this event would take place and I would not be present for such an internationally significant moment. As the first of the two 1978 conclaves produced a new pontiff in the wonderfully smiling Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, I resolved to accept the fact—although with an occasional expression of personal frustration—that I had missed the moment and would just have to accept the fate of my poor timing.
Then Sept. 28 brought a second papal conclave into view, and I tripped over myself preparing quickly to return to Rome to witness the election of Pope John Paul II, who would become for me the most significant of all the popes in my life. I returned to Rome in time to witness the funeral liturgy for Pope John Paul I and the activities of preparation for the second conclave in 1978. It was a very exciting time in Rome as people returned to the city in anticipation of a second conclave within two months and I witnessed my fourth papal vacancy. Living in Rome during those early weeks of October 1978 was a grace—the entire city was electric with conversations and predictions based upon the sudden and unexpected death of Pope John Paul I. The technological advances brought the entire world closer to Rome than ever before in history as people engaged commentators and media personalities who described the events and brought vivid coverage of the activities. When the man from Krakow appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica there was excitement, disbelief and a warm outpouring of affection for the first non-Italian pope in nearly 500 years.
It would be nearly 27 years until another papal vacancy took place. By then, in 2005, I was the very fortunate Archbishop of Atlanta and had enjoyed dozens of personal encounters with Blessed John Paul II and an equal if not greater number of meetings with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger who would emerge on the loggia as Benedict XVI.
Now nearly eight years later, I witness my sixth papal vacancy with the same level of anticipation as all Catholics the world over. Now the media is not only proficient, but omnipresent, and very actively engaged in detailing the processes of a conclave with opinions, predictions, background details, statistical odds and the opportunity to express all manner of unedited and immediate opinions (positive or negative, about any potential candidate or even the Church or its universal mission itself). Television that was gray and grainy in 1958 clearly has been supplanted by smartphones, tablets, and social media tools unthinkable 55 years ago.
This conclave will allow people throughout the world a much greater ability to see the events and to express their opinions about a whole host of things. Yet the Cardinals will gather in prayer and deliberation in a 15th-century chapel and follow a tradition that may seem antiquated by others in order to choose the one who will inherit the Office of Peter in the Church. The technological innovations of the 21st century will be used to view a process that is intended to continue the pastoral office once entrusted to Peter and his successors.
May the Holy Spirit inspire and guide those who view and those who vote as we await the one who will appear on the loggia with the heavy burden of office on his shoulders and the prayers of the entire Church as a sure source of strength.