Much of the Catholic world was stunned by the news that Pope Benedict XVI will resign the papacy at the end of this month. Benedict's timing cannot be coincidental.
The declaration came a few days before the start of Lent. That is the forty days before Easter that many Christians customarily use to reflect on the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as well as his life, death, burial and resurrection. It is also a time of hopeful renewal.
The last time a pope resigned voluntarily was 1294 when Celestine V abdicated. Legend has it that the great poet Dante was so incensed that he put the retired pontiff into the antechamber of his Inferno. In the seven hundred years since no other pope has ever taken the name Celestine.
On Ash Wednesday, I met for a two-hour discussion with The Most Reverend Michael Miller, Archbishop of Vancouver. Miller is a globally respected papal scholar and author of seven books on topics ranging from the Holy See's teaching on Catholic schools, to the development of the papacy and the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. Before coming to Vancouver, he was senior official of the Roman Curia, in the Vatican's Secretariat of State, and served as secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education and vice president of the Pontifical Work of Priestly Vocations.
Miller worked closely with Pope Benedict and calls him "one of the great intellectual, scholarly popes." He told me that the pontiff has a "masterful mind and a sweet disposition" -- someone who, although a keen and attentive listener, was always the "smartest guy in the room."
Miller is also close to one of the leading contenders for the papacy, Cardinal Marc Ouellett of Quebec. He and Ouellet attended seminary together and served at the same time in Rome. Today, Cardinal Ouellet of Quebec is at the very pinnacle of the Vatican hierarchy as Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. Miller is obviously a great supporter of Ouellet and believes he has all the necessary attributes for a great pope.
Whether Ouellet emerges as the new Holy Father or not, Archbishop Miller is sanguine about the selection process. Despite the view of some that the meeting of the College of Cardinals is largely a political process, Miller insists that no "campaigning" takes place. He told me that this is a quiet, reflective, and prayerful process. "Decisions are based on spiritual reflection and who Cardinals truly believe is the best man for the job at the time", Miller told me. Each Cardinal takes a Latin oath, which translates to: "I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected."
Miller emphasized that participants in the Conclave are deeply spiritual people who understand the solemnity and momentousness of their charge.
Archbishop Miller embodies all I love about the Catholic Church. He's warmhearted and gracious, approachable and sympathetic, sincere and authentic. He's a brilliant and erudite pastor and teacher. And he is also a tough and resolute disciple, guardian and teacher of church doctrine.
The selection of a new pope always gives rise to those who hope to "modernize" the Church. This view reflects a misunderstanding of the very foundations of the Catholic Church and its sacraments. No pope has authority to alter essential doctrine, and by definition, it is inconceivable that someone who isn't orthodox could ever be called to the papacy.
At its core, belief in the doctrine of the Catholic Church is an act of faith, and as such, cannot be modified to "fit the times." In an era of rapid technological, social, and economic transformation, there is a comforting tranquility in the rock of Catholicism and its institutions. It may be tough for non-Catholics or non-believers to grasp, but the Church isn't in business to adapt to the ever-changing dispositions of our society.
For Catholics, it is incumbent on us to embrace Jesus Christ and His teachings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: "efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions."
I am the product of a Catholic school education in Quebec. While my faith has never fully left me, it has certainly been severely tested. I doubted the relevance of the church and its sacraments to my daily life. But my search resulted in rediscovering the magnificence and power of my faith. For me, it has been an even more profound and rich blessing the second time around.
And I feel a great sense of gratitude to Archbishop Michael Miller -- and countless others like him -- who hear and accept the call to serve.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, splashes holy water during his visit to the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem on February 27, 2008. AFP PHOTO/MUSA AL-SHAER (Photo credit should read MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images)
TRIER, GERMANY - APRIL 13: Cardinal Marc Ouellet holds a mass in celebration of The Pilgrimage of the Holy Robe at the Cathedral of St Peter on April 13, 2012 in Trier, Germany. The Pilgrimage of the Holy Robe runs from April 13 to May 13, during which hundreds of thousands pilgrims are expected to view the Holy Robe. The robe, said to have been worn by Jesus Christ leading up to his crucifixion, is housed by the cathedral and rarely displayed for public viewing. (Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images)
The President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi poses during the presentation of Pope Benedict XVI's new book 'Childhood of Jesus' to the press on November 20, 2012 at the Vatican. “Childhood of Jesus” is the third volume of Joseph Ratzinger's 'Jesus of Nazareth' series. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
Vatican State Secretary Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (L) and the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola chat at La Scala theatre in Milan on June 1, 2012 during the 7th World Meeting of Families. Benedict attended a concert at the prestigious Scala opera house to hear Beethoven's Ninth Symphony conducted by Daniel Barenboim. AFP PHOTO / POOL / DANIEL DAL ZENNARO (Photo credit should read DANIEL DAL ZENNARO/AFP/GettyImages)
President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue of the Vatican City Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (C) pay his respects at the Golden Temple Sikh Shrine in Amritsar on November 11, 2011. Tauran along with four members visited the city to attend a religious seminary on Sikhism and Christians to be held at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar on November 12. AFP PHOTO/NARINDER NANU (Photo credit should read NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Benedict XVI talks with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of CEI (Italian Bishops' Conference), during an audience with the Curia for Christmas greetings, in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace, in Vatican City, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011. The Pope met with Cardinals and members of the Roman Curia for an exchange of greetings ahead of the year end festivities. (AP Photo/Claudio Peri, Pool)
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan speaks to the press in his residence, Monday, Feb. 11, 2013. Dolan says he was as startled as the rest of the world about Pope Benedict XVI's announcement that he will resign later this month due to failing health. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines takes place for an audience with the pontif on November 26, 2012 at Paul VI hall at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI led an audience to the six non-European prelates appointed two-days ago as new members of the College of Cardinals. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, right, arrives for a meeting, at the Vatican, Monday, March 4, 2013. Cardinals from around the world have gathered inside the Vatican for their first round of meetings before the conclave to elect the next pope, amid scandals inside and out of the Vatican and the continued reverberations of Benedict XVI's decision to retire. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) CORRECTION: An earlier photo incorrectly identified Bernard Cardinal Agre, the Archbishop Emeritus of Cote D'Ivoire as Cardinal Arinze
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