The crowds were larger, the audience wider as Benedict XVI spoke at his final general audience Wednesday, Feb. 27. His candor was striking: “There have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the church it has ever been - and the Lord seemed to sleep.”
And amid the thanks, to his collaborators, the people of the church, a wider public, there was a sense of hopefulness, that he was not in it alone: “I said before that many people who love the Lord also love the Successor of Saint Peter and are fond of him, that the pope has truly brothers and sisters, sons and daughters all over the world, and that he feels safe in the embrace of their communion, because he no longer belongs to himself, but he belongs to all and all are truly his own.”
That it was historic and affecting is evident in its reception. On Faith, the religion blog of the Washington Post, published the full text. Here is the Catholic News Service coverage. In Britain, the Guardian gave it huge display, and the Tablet captured the intimacy of the interaction with the huge crowd, reporting that Benedict spoke of hearing from so many across the world who “write as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, with the sense of very affectionate family ties." And in the United States, the National Catholic Reporter highlighted the intimacy of the moment. Writing for Reuters, Philip Pullella reported the departing pontiff’s own reaction at the end of the audience: “ ‘Thank you, I am very moved,’ Benedict told a cheering crowd of more than 150,000 people in St Peter's Square a day before he becomes the first pope to step down in some six centuries.” And here is Nicole Winfield of the Associated Press. The National Catholic Register used a Catholic News Agency report emphasizing Benedict’s stress on feeling hopeful in the transition.
With the actual departure from office to follow a final meeting with the College of Cardinals Thursday, there is much attention to the emeritus pontiff’s status. The BBC has a primer on his retirement. And there has been a number of articles from a more secular viewpoint, finding a positive lesson for other organization’s in Benedict’s decision to leave, for example, this blog written for Forbes magazine that concludes that “CEOs would do well to learn those lessons.” And Russell Shaw, formerly communications secretary for the American bishops, puts that in somewhat more religious, yet still practical terms in a posting on the website CatholicExchange.com: “Benedict’s action sets an important modern precedent that could continue to serve the Church and the papacy well in years to come in the face of rising longevity in combination with crises now unforeseen.”
For all that, there is a huge sense of organizational crisis. Most of all, the abuse scandal continues to unfold In bits and pieces, all lamentable, all tragic for the alleged victims, for the accused, for the prelates who dealt with it, often badly. But, in sum, there is a huge effect on the public reputation of the church and clearly a shadow on the departure of this pope and the coming election of his successor. In a Page One story for The New York Times, Laurie Goodstein, sets the foreboding scene: Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s decision to absent himself from the conclave “came as at least a dozen other cardinals tarnished with accusations that they had failed to remove priests accused of sexually abusing minors were among those gathering in Rome to prepare for the conclave to select a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. There was no sign that the church’s promise to confront the sexual abuse scandal had led to direct pressure on those cardinals to exempt themselves from the conclave.” But “many of the men who will go into the Sistine Chapel to elect a pope they hope will help the church recover from the bruising scandal of sexual abuse have themselves been blemished by it.”
Benedict named the archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, to succeed O’Brien as apostolic administrator of the Scotland’s primatial see, St. Andrews and Edinburgh. Tartaglia has been an inflammatory figure, writes John Bingham, religious affairs editor for The Telegraph, having commented on the death of a gay member of Parliament by saying that homosexuality can be fatal.
John Thavis, former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, has a book coming out shortly, “The Vatican Diaries.” He gave an interview to National Public Radio that is full of insight, particularly his experience talking to church officials, who after answering his questions would go on to ask what he knew of the work of other Vatican departments. “And I soon realized that there really is little or no cross-communication inside the Vatican. It may seem amazing to outsiders, but the pope, for example, doesn't hold Cabinet meetings. He doesn't convene his top managers once a week or once a month or maybe even once a year and sit them down and say, 'We've got to be on the same page. What are the projects you're working on? Here's what I want to do. Let's makes sure we get our signals straight.' This generally does not happen, and probably a lot of people feel it's time that it does happen."
That such fundamental communications has not happened, even under such bright and self-assured leaders as Benedict and John Paul II is surprising, disappointing, and may account for how scandals like the misuse of the Vatican bank, the apparent sexual indiscretions of senior clerics, the leaks of internal church memos in the last few months have grown.
As newspaper writers once typed at the bottom of a story still developing, there is “more to come.”