Eight years ago, I was at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and School of Theology on retreat the week after Blessed Pope John Paul II died – during the last Sede Vacante in the Catholic Church. This week, I find myself once again at Saint Meinrad as the Church enters Sede Vacante, visiting our seminarians for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis as Vocation Director. So, for me, there is a deep connection between the vacancy of the Chair of St. Peter and the monastery and seminary where I was formed for the priesthood.
With the extraordinary events of these weeks coming at the beginning of my time as Vocation Director, I have reflected considerably on the connections between Benedict XVI’s decision to renounce the papacy and vocational discernment in general.
Perhaps the most direct connection is a public example of what discernment can look like. I particularly see three characteristics of discernment in the way Benedict XVI spoke about his decision: 1) profound prayer and conversation with God; 2) consultation with people you trust – it seems Benedict XVI spoke about this decision at least with his elder brother; and 3) looking to the Saints for example, witness, and prayer – in his case, Pope St. Peter Celestine, who resigned as pope in 1294. These three movements are critical in any process of discernment – whether for the pope or for a young person considering priesthood or religious life.
A second connection between the story of these past few weeks and vocational discernment is an example of the difference between vocation and ministry. Within each larger vocation (priesthood, marriage, religious life, single life), there are a number of different ministries. While a chosen vocation is a life-long commitment, each person’s ministries within that vocation can change through life – from pastor to vocation director, for example. In renouncing the papacy, Benedict XVI has brought to an end his ministry as Supreme Pontiff – but he has not forsaken his vocation as a priest and bishop. In reading and listening to many people’s reactions to this momentous news, it seems that there is often an understanding that vocation and ministry are the same thing – but there are definite differences, and Benedict XVI has reminded us of those differences.
In these days of the end of one papacy, the vacancy of the Chair of St. Peter, a Papal Conclave, and the beginning of a new papacy, the Church unites as one in prayer. In his farewell address to the College of Cardinals, Benedict XVI quoted theologian Romano Guardini in reminding us what the Church is all about: “The Church is not an institution devised and built at table, but a living reality. She lives along the course of time by transforming Herself, like any living being, yet Her nature remains the same. At Her heart is Christ. ”
We know that Christ will guide the Church in these days, because it is first and foremost His Church.