Pope's resignation was a shock

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Column by Jim Clark

When I was a young boy in Catholic school, we sang a hymn, “Long live the pope his praises sound, again and yet again; his rule is over space and time, his throne the hearts of men.”

The pope in those days was Pope Pius XII, and I always thought that Pius was a strange name, and it was even stranger that there had been 12 of them. Of course, he was followed by John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who is still pope today.

You were always conditioned that the only way to replace a pope was to elect a new one when the existing pope died. There was a lot of grieving for the deceased pope, but then it became dramatic as you listened (no live television for a few years) to the descriptions of the smoke coming out of the Vatican’s secretive meeting of cardinals. Black smoke meant no pope, white smoke meant we had a new pope, and then we waited anxiously for the announcement of who it was.

By the way, the ballots are burned with a chemical compound to create the black smoke, and by themselves to create the white smoke.

In those days we usually didn’t know any of the candidates, so there was no instant analysis when a new Holy Father was named.

Knowing that history, you can see why Catholic around the world, including myself, were shocked to wake up Monday morning and hear that Pope Benedict was going to resign on Feb. 28.

I wasn’t around when the last pope resigned (in the year 1415) so, like others, I waited to see what would happen. It eventually came out during the day that the cardinals, much like they do when the pope dies, would gather at the Vatican for a “conclave,” usually held in the Sistine Chapel in secret, to choose a successor.

Now, we know what people are thinking about a successor almost from the moment that Benedict’s resignation was announced (the word “abdicate” does not appear in Canon Law, I’m told).

This is not new. Back in 2005, then Cardinal Ratzinger was listed as one of the favorites, and they were right. He’s now Benedict XVI.

For me, in the few times there have been papal elections since I’ve been alive, the intrigue isn’t so much on who the pope will be, but what name he will choose. Most of the names have some historical or biblical link, someone the new pope wishes to emulate.

For instance, Benedict means “blessed,” and Pope Benedict XV was pope during World War I and worked tirelessly for peace, and St. Benedict founded many monasteries and the Benedictine order.

So for the next couple of weeks we’ll watch, wonder and listen as the pundits try to figure out who the favorite is. Tradition says it will be a European … but you never know.

Jim Clark is the editor of the South Marion Citizen and attended St. John the Evangelist School in Bergenfield and Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell, both in New Jersey.