Once upon a time: World is witness to new, improved papal election

Holy Spirit at work as selection of pontiffs for over a century has been a smooth process without controversy

Wow! Habemus papam! Awesome to today’s ninth-grade student, the election of Pope Francis in March seemed quite different from that student’s experience in primary school. To that same individual’s parents and grandparents I feel sure that the papal election process, now even more “new and improved,” indicated some marked differences.

The attitude of the press in Eastern and Western hemispheres is markedly improving—very little hostility is in the air. If you asked near the end of Blessed John Paul ll’s pontificate “Who will be our next Holy Father?” you probably would have joined millions of others in suggesting Cardinal Ratzinger (who did become Pope Benedict XVl). But when Pope Benedict XVl resigned not a decade later, it was a whole new ball game. Candidates from the Far East, from Africa, and the Americas joined European cardinals as being “in the running.”

It’s now history that on the second day of voting white smoke came from the small chimney pipe atop the Sistine Chapel and within a few minutes Cardinal Jean-Louis Pierre Tauran announced, “Habemus papam”: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, of Buenos-Aires in South America. Our new Holy Father chose the name Francis.

This did not cause a crisis in the Mankel family, but I may note here that our family has lots of Georges: my great-uncle; my daddy; my brother; my uncle; cousins; even my sister (in Religion she was given the name Georgeanna). So with the election of Pope Francis, he becomes my mother’s and my twin—she’s Willia Frances and I am Francis Xavier. St Francis Xavier’s patron was Francis of Assisi.

There is no way to describe how blessed and fortunate we are to have Cardinal Justin Rigali living in semi-retirement right here in our Diocese of Knoxville. The cardinal has voted in two conclaves now, for Popes Benedict XVl and Francis. He also was a candidate as were all the cardinals. The United States had its share of great candidates: Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston (with family right here in Knoxville); Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York (so friendly to everybody and personal friend of our own dear bishop); and Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, formerly Archbishop of Baltimore and now the Cardinal Protector of the Equestrian Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (and) our own Monsignor Phil Thoni’s good friend from military chaplaincy days. So many holy candidates make me feel as if our Church, The Body of Christ, is alive and well.

It was not always this way, however. Our selection of popes for over a century has gone very well and it is easy to see the power of the Holy Spirit working in the Church. However, as late as the 1800s when Austria held a strange veto power over the selections of candidates for the papacy, the entanglement between the Holy See and temporal states was always a problem, notwithstanding political situations that caused abnormalities to distract the spiritual leadership of Christ’s vicar on earth.

With St. Peter, pope No. 1 in the series that now is 266 popes long, the selection of his replacement did not seem to be such a big deal. The priests of Rome got together and elected a successor, St. Linus. For many years a rather informal procedure provided successors to popes who had died. After the Church came “out of the catacombs” (fourth century: Constantine was the Emperor), the pope’s responsibilities as the head of the Church as well as the territories known as the “donation of Pepin” or “papal states” increased. And even though the tension abated during some centuries, the whole mess was not settled until 1929, less than a century ago.

Papal elections during the middle ages deserve an entire installment. Let me say that we are enjoying a Church today, which in spite of its problems and concerns, is headed in the right direction. If we study our faith, read the Bible, and try to live by the constitutions of recent ecumenical councils, we can rest assured that it is not just an Easter feast each year that makes us “grow and glow” in the Risen Lord our God.


Monsignor Mankel is a vicar general of the diocese and the pastor of Holy Ghost parish in Knoxville.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *