For Michael Hendershott, papal succession is opportunity to study, serve
Seminarian Michael Hendershott’s studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome are preparing him for a lifetime of service to God and the Catholic Church.
Studies in theology, philosophy, and history, however, couldn’t fully prepare him for events that have reshaped the See of Peter in the last six weeks.
Mr. Hendershott has had a front-row seat to history, witnessing His Holiness Benedict XVI resign as pope—something that hasn’t happened since Gregory XII in 1415—and the election of the 265th successor to St. Peter.
And Mr. Hendershott’s proximity to the Vatican during the papal transition positioned him for recruitment to high-level duty. He assisted Cardinal Justin Rigali of the Diocese of Knoxville, who serves in the College of Cardinals and was a papal elector, and he also assisted with communion during the inaugural Mass for Pope Francis on March 19.
Mr. Hendershott, whose home parish is St. John Neumann in Farragut, has watched with interest those occasions when Pope Francis dispensed with formality and made himself very accessible to the faithful. The seminarian was only a few feet away when the new pontiff appeared for his inaugural Mass. He sees similarities to Benedict XVI—and differences.
“It seems to me the Mass had a continuity to Pope Benedict. It was the same structure, with Latin and the Gospel in Greek. Overall, it seemed very similar,” Mr. Hendershott said.
But he also observed that Pope Francis appeared 25 minutes early for his inaugural Mass to meet the people gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
“We’re expecting the unexpected. Be ready for anything. He was walking down the street just to meet people. He passed right by me and he had a sense of peace about him. He was in the popemobile without the glass. He drove by as one of your neighbors would drive by. The Holy Father is becoming more familiar to people,” he said, noting he has seen the Holy Spirit at work and the apostolic faith present as the Church undergoes change.
As he witnessed the world’s attention descend on the Holy See, the 25-year-old seminarian said he has watched Christ’s teachings come alive, as with the humility and love shown in Benedict XVI’s selfless act of stepping down, the promise of salvation as thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square to pray for a new pope and their chant in unison, “Long live the pope,” and then the white smoke that rose from the Sistine Chapel signaling the selection of a new pope.
“I can see the providence of God at work protecting the Church. It’s the light of the world. I’ve understood that in a way that couldn’t be better demonstrated than through the papal succession, the election of a new pope for the See of St. Peter,” Mr. Hendershott said. “There is a strong characteristic of Catholic faith emphasizing the sacramental life. Being so close to the bones of Peter and to so many martyrs; being close to the Holy Fathers Benedict and Francis is having a profound effect on me.”
In addition to his intensive studies at the Pontifical North American College, Mr. Hendershott said he will use what he has learned from His Holiness Benedict XVI and Pope Francis in his service as a priest in the Diocese of Knoxville
Mr. Hendershott, who began his studies in fall 2007 at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, thanked Bishop Richard F. Stika and Diocese of Knoxville parishioners for their support. “I feel very blessed and graced by the providence of God. I’m very grateful to Bishop Stika and the people of the diocese for the opportunity to be studying in Rome,” he said.
As the Catholic faith has captured the attention of the world in recent weeks, Mr. Hendershott and fellow seminarians have watched with interest how the media has covered the papal succession and how the world has reacted. The students understand the need to convey an accurate message about the Church and its divine mission. “The See of St. Peter has been the main focus, but there also is a renewed focus on the study of history and any precedent for these events. We look forward to how this might affect seminarians in the future. We are preparing ourselves for what might come,” he said.