As Monsignor Joseph Celano, of St. Bernard of Clairvaux Church on Route 22, fields questions from congregants concerning the recent announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will step down at the end of the month, he said it will serve as a teachable moment about the workings of the church.
“The congregation was pretty well stunned,” he said. “But we can take advantage of this teachable moment, and help people understand the workings of the church.”
The next question, Celano said, is what the process of the papal election will be like.
“We went through this not too long ago, and the conclave convened,” he said. “People can understand what the process is, and then people will always be speculating about who the next pontiff will be.”
Celano said he is actually amused by those questions because there is no real way of knowing who will be chosen.
“I think the speculation of the next pope may be entertaining and may be something people like to kick around in terms of a political thing,” he said. “But there is no way of knowing. We will know the day the white smoke comes down and the new pope comes on the balcony.”
While he was stunned by the announcement himself, Celano said, he also respects it.
“I don’t think this was something the church itself was expecting, and it certainly has not happened in 600 years, so the announcement was stunning,” he said. “We really can’t speculate what the reasons are, and I think we have to trust the Pope at his word. He is 85, almost 86, and he cited health reasons. Health reasons are not unthinkable given a man of his age.”
But, Celano said, he believes the decision was motivated by great love for the church, as well as a sense of humility on the Pope’s part.
“What I admire about the decision is that in an age when everything is about power and holding on to power, he chose to let go of it and I think that takes great love," he said. "I think it is really self-sacrificing on his part.”
As for the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, Celano said he believes it is too early to determine what that might be.
“Sometimes a person’s legacy will not be determined immediately, it will take time,” he said. “I think we have to let history make its judgment.”
“The church will get through this time like it always has,” he added. “This is another moment in history, and we will be guided through as we have been guided.”
One of the biggest things people will learn now, Celano said, is that the pope can renounce his office.
“The law of the church does provide for this kind of thing,” he said. “What makes it so stunning is that we have not experienced it in 600 years.”
“Most popes have chosen to die in office,” he added. “What we’re trying to do is really help people to appreciate a little bit of the understanding behind this, that the bishop of Rome can renounce his office if he feels it is in the best interest of the church.”