Flashing back to the last sede vacante

In 2005, when Pope John Paul II died, it set off a chain of mixed emotions and confusing events, at least for me. This was the first interregnum I had been through — JPII had ascended to the papacy several years before I was born. The news of Benedict XVI’s impending departure sent me back to those days, and I would like to reflect on that now.

At that time, I was a sophomore in college, working on the student newspaper. Everyone had known the pope was gravely ill, of course, as he had been for years. A few wags on the paper set up a Popewatch chart, with color coding similar to the old Homeland Security terrorism threat level charts — if the level was red, the pope was dead. It wasn’t an intended dig at JPII, I think; it was more of a dig at the absurdity of the situation.

We were preparing a special edition for whenever the pope passed, so I had spent time working on a piece about his legacy. (Believe it or not, people differed over it.) But this was the weekend now, so I didn’t, I hope, have to think about it. I had a class assignment to work on that required me to go to a nearby black-oriented museum — called America’s Black Holocaust Museum, its exhibits focused on the slave trade and the later lynchings (it is now closed) — and go through the exhibits, which included a replica room of a slave ship. Tough stuff. When I exited, I found a voicemail from a friend informing me the pope had died.

I silently prayed the “Eternal rest…” prayer, and I knew the rest of the weekend would be a blur.

I remember extra prayers at Mass. I remember how weird it was that at the part of the Mass where the pope is named, the priest merely skipped it. (That’s what is specified in the norms.) I remember being in the newsroom but not much else. I remember the uneasiness of knowing we would have a different pope from, well, the rest of my entire life.

And I remember being in the newsroom when Benedict was announced as the new pope and not knowing what I felt (I knew some things, but not a lot, about him). I remember being gigantically angry and embarrassed when the headline in the next edition announcing Benedict said “Habemus papem,” an inexcusably dumb mistake at a Catholic university. (It’s “papam,” as the Internet or basic knowledge of Latin would tell you.)

And then, slowly enough, things returned to normal. Life went on. And that’s a comfort as we approach the next papacy. Regardless of what changes, the Church and life will go on. Even if the next pope is a dud, the Church will go on. In spite of its foes, the Church will go on. And despite all the upheaval and incompetence and poor showings of its representatives, the Church goes on.

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