Cardinal Justin Rigali is one of 117 College of Cardinals electors assembling for Vatican conclave to choose next pontiff
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on Feb. 11 shocked Catholics around the world, including those in the Diocese of Knoxville, which is home to papal elector Cardinal Justin Rigali.
Pope Benedict became the first Holy Father to resign since Gregory XII in 1415. The pope will retire, living at a monastery at the Vatican, where he said he would serve the Church “through a life dedicated to prayer.”
Bishop Richard F. Stika and Cardinal Rigali appeared at a press conference at the Chancery on Feb. 11 to discuss the pope’s resignation.
And for the second time, Cardinal Rigali—archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who is in residence in the Diocese of Knoxville—will serve as an elector for a new pope.
“The cardinal served in this capacity in 2005 and soon will join with 116 other cardinals from around the world as they come forward in prayer and reflection for the election of a new pope,” Bishop Stika said.
Cardinal Rigali, who took part in the vote for Pope Benedict, was scheduled to be in Rome by March 1 to join the College of Cardinals that will assemble in conclave to select Pope Benedict’s successor. He departed for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem after the Knoxville press conference but took time to answer the media’s questions about the pope’s surprise announcement. Cardinal Rigali made a brief statement “just to draw your attention to the reasons that Pope Benedict XVI gave for his resignation.”
“It is very typical of his humility and of his clear thinking. His reasoning is that he didn’t think he had the sufficient strength to carry on the work of the office of the successor of Peter. … The Catholic world is very grateful to him, and I know the entire world is very interested in what is going on, so I myself as one of the electors of the new pope am extremely interested and will be involved during the conclave.”
The cardinal said he would return from the 10-day pilgrimage and “go to Rome immediately and be there at the time that his resignation takes place.”
Cardinal Rigali said the usual papal election—after a pope’s death—follows a period of “nine days to pray for the repose of his soul.” But the rare instance of a pope resigning left the Vatican working to clarify “exactly when the conclave will start,” he said. When the conclave begins, the cardinals will “enter into the Sistine Chapel, and they have meetings every day in the morning and the afternoon until a pope is elected. We know that there must be a majority of two-thirds plus one.”
The newly elected Benedict “absolutely floored me” with one comment literally minutes after he had been chosen in 2005, Cardinal Rigali said. The 113 cardinals from all over the world were going before the new pope to express their obedience to him.
“He had the presence of mind, which he has maintained so magnificently during his whole pontificate, to say to me, ‘Happy birthday,’” the cardinal said. “He happened to be elected on my birthday in 2005.”
The cardinal was asked what traits are sought in a new pope.
“We’re looking for an awful lot,” he said, adding that the chosen man must have everything from compassion to understanding to an ability to communicate in various languages.
The “ideal candidate would have everything,” the cardinal said, “but he also remains human—he’s not going to have everything. First of all, he’s going to be the bishop of Rome, the pastor of the universal Catholic Church with all that that entails, so just imagining the qualities that are needed, they are enormous.”
Cardinal Rigali said he was at first shocked when Bishop Stika told him of the pope’s resignation early on Feb. 11.
“When I read the pope’s statement and saw his reasons for resigning, it made great sense. He’s 85—he’s approaching his 86th birthday—and we all know the extraordinary issues that he has to deal with day in and day out, so he very candidly said, ‘I’m now convinced’ that the role of the successor of Peter is so involved, that I don’t have the strength to go on.
“That was very beautiful because he certainly gave his all in everything he did, but as he was growing older, he feels the weight of it all.”
Cardinal Rigali said “in my dealings” with Pope Benedict, “every single time I’ve dealt with him, his mind is so clear.”
The cardinal was asked whether he expects the pope’s successor to be more in line with Vatican II.
“I expect the pope’s successor to be very much in line with the teaching of Vatican II, just as I believe Pope Benedict XVI was,” he said.
Pope Benedict told Cardinal Rigali last fall that 50 years ago, “I was down there” in St. Peter’s Square during the Second Vatican Council.
“I said, ‘Holy Father, I was down there, too, 50 years ago, and I’m still down there,” replied Cardinal Rigali, who related the story to members of the East Tennessee media during the press conference.
The cardinal said “there’s no such thing as a pope today that doesn’t accept Vatican II, and there’s no such thing as a pope today who doesn’t accept all the other councils, the 20 councils that were before Vatican II.”
Regarding the new pope’s adherence to Vatican II, Cardinal Rigali referred to “a point that Pope Benedict made Oct. 11 in St. Peter’s Square” on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council convening.
“He says don’t talk about the ‘spirit of Vatican II,’ because there is no spirit of Vatican II independent of the texts of Vatican II. So what Vatican II said, Vatican II meant, and that’s the spirit.”
Preparing to select a pope for the second time in eight years, Cardinal Rigali described the voting process for the cardinals, who will be sequestered, and shared other details of the historic process.
“They vote twice in the morning, and then they vote twice in the afternoon,” he said. “So if there’s a pope elected on the first ballot, for example, then they announce it immediately. If there’s a pope elected on the second ballot, they’ll announce it immediately.”
Pope Benedict will not be present at the conclave, according to the cardinal.
“He’s done his work; it’s in the hands of God, and now the process begins all over again.”
Cardinal Rigali said that while a pope can resign, “it doesn’t usually happen.” He said Pope Benedict “was getting weaker” physically but was still sharp otherwise.
“His physical forces aren’t what they used to be, and yet he pulls things off. He writes beautifully still, and he makes perfect sense.”
This month’s papal election will be the second for Cardinal Rigali, although as a younger priest he was in St. Peter’s Square at the time Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul I, and Pope John Paul II were elected.
The cardinals will all stay at the Santa Marta residence during the conclave and either walk or take a bus to the Sistine Chapel for the papal election.
Discussions about a new pope begin immediately upon the death or resignation of the previous pope, but they end once the conclave begins, Cardinal Rigali said.
“From the moment of the death of the pope or his resignation, the cardinals are free to discuss any way that they want—in groups, personally, individually, they make their opinions known,” he said. “They ask questions. They give their recommendations to one another, and all of this takes place in the days preceding the entrance into the conclave.
“But when they go to the Sistine Chapel, there are no discussions. That’s the final phase—that’s the voting. There are no discussions there. It’s simply a time of prayer and taking the oath.”
Bishop Stika said he was “surprised and shocked initially” by the pope’s resignation, but that “it all made sense once you were able to hear the reasons why.”
Bishop Stika saw Pope Benedict during an ad limina visit to the Vatican in January 2012.
“I saw him early last year, and then I saw him in May, and he’d aged considerably between those months. He’s going to be 86 in April. How many 86-year-old men run an operation like the universal Church? I think the Church is 1.2 billion people in every culture. He’s a head of state; his daily activity is seven days a week.
“A lot of folks are talking about the fact that this shows his real sense of humility and devotion to the Church. Here he is, one of the most recognized men in the world, powerful in many ways, and yet he’s walking away from it all to spend the rest of his life in prayer. That’s pretty admirable.”
Bishop Stika, a St. Louis native, pointed out that there are three papal electors out of the 117 total with ties to his hometown. Cardinal Rigali is a former archbishop of St. Louis. Cardinal Raymond Burke succeeded Cardinal Rigali in St. Louis. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York was born in St. Louis.
“In that small group of individuals, three will have St. Louis ties,” said Bishop Stika, who is in residence with Cardinal Rigali.
The bishop said that “it’s a real honor” to have a cardinal who is also a papal elector living in Knoxville because so many cardinal electors are bishops of large dioceses.
“To have one of those cardinals here is pretty significant for the diocese,” Bishop Stika said. “It’s pretty significant for Knoxville because we have one of the cardinal electors here, and we know him. We see him in our parishes. We see him here at the Chancery, and I live with him.”
The bishop said the pope’s resignation is “significant because the pope is the face of the Church.”
“In many ways he’s the face of Christianity because there is no other religious figure, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is so well known and such a public figure.”
John Paul II “was very comfortable being in the public” and used his illness as a “teaching moment,” Bishop Stika said.
“Pope Benedict is much more of an introvert, I think, and as he prepares for this next stage of his life, he’s going to do it in a different way.”
That different way is by “giving his energy to another facet of the Church: prayer,” Bishop Stika said.
The bishop met Pope John Paul II several times and said he was like a grandfather, whereas a meeting with Benedict was “like talking to your favorite uncle,” he said.
“The difference I found with Pope John Paul—when you would shake his hand, he would look exactly right at you, with his big ol’ blue eyes and give you all kinds of attention, but he would shake your hand. Pope Benedict, the times I met him, he would put his hand on top of your hand and actually engage you in conversation. He would be a guy you would be very, very comfortable with.”
Bishop Stika was the last bishop to leave the room during his ad limina visit with the pope last year.
“As my back was to [Pope Benedict], he said, ‘Please pray for me.’ And I turned around and I said, ‘Holy Father, I pray for you all the time,’ then left, but it was like a solitary voice: ‘Please pray for me.’”
As a former professor, Pope Benedict “was a good teacher, and I think he taught the world a lot and prepared the world for the next pope,” Bishop Stika said.
The “entire world took note” of Pope Benedict’s resignation, even though “some people believe that the Church is diminishing in influence and power,” the bishop said.
“But at some point, every major news organization in the world will be in Rome, and they’ll be calling attention to the roof of the Sistine Chapel, to a little pipe that comes out of that roof that’s attached to an old potbelly stove in the back of the chapel. And at some time the entire world in the digital age of technology will be looking for white smoke or black smoke, and this has been a time-honored tradition for centuries.”
In recent times, many cardinals have never voted for a new pope because of the long pontificate of John Paul II.
“Cardinal Rigali’s going to have the opportunity, God willing, to vote in two papal elections,” Bishop Stika said.