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from issue no. 03 - 2007

The ways of Providence

by Cardinal Angelo Sodano

«I am called Paul, but my name is Peter», Pope Paul VI declared speaking in Geneva to the members of the Ecumenical Council of Churches on 10 June 1969.
«I am called Benedict, but my name is Peter», Pope Benedict XVI could now repeat.
Between the humble fisherman of Galilee and today 265 supreme pontiffs have passed, all with their own characteristics, but equally intent on fulfilling the mission entrusted to them by the Lord, that of being the visible foundation of His Church.
In these two thousand years of history, we have been able to contemplate the workings of the Providence of God, that has always watched over Holy Church. «Man proposes and God disposes», an ancient proverb tells us. And that is all the more true when we analyze the history of the Christian community and, in particular, that of the Roman pontificate.
It was in fact Providence that inspired Peter to leave Jerusalem and move first to Antioch and then to Rome. It is Providence that has always watched over this Church, stirring generous-hearted continuators of the work of the apostle Peter. He had been chosen directly by Christ, who then left it to the successors of the apostle to establish, with their primatial authority, the concrete modes for choosing their successors.
The procedures for the election of the bishop of Rome changed, then, with the passage of time, but the historical documents tell us of the abiding effort of the successors of Peter to defend the freedom of the Church against the pressure of political power and to assert the legitimacy of the choices made against the challengers of pontifical authority who sometimes arose in some Christian communities.

A look at history
Already toward the end of the year 251, Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, was called on to defend Pope Cornelius from those who challenged his legitimacy, demonstrating that his election had taken place according to the regular procedure then in force. «Cornelius has been consecrated bishop by the judgment of God and of Christ», Saint Cyprian affirmed, «through the all but unanimous testimony of the clergy, with the suffrage of the people present, the consent of the elder priests and of people of regard, without anyone before him being elected to occupy the See left vacant on the death of Pope Fabian».
At the beginning of the second Christian millennium the well-known decisive shift took place in the intention of avoiding a whole series of outside meddlings and internal divisions in the choice of the bishop of Rome. History tells us that it was Pope Nicholas II who reserved solely to the College of Cardinals, as representatives of the clergy of Rome, the right to elect the bishop of this See. And such has been the procedure that from 1060 till today, though with various modifications, has been followed in choosing Peter’s successor.

The vote of the cardinals
Gathered in conclave, the cardinals pray for the light of the Holy Spirit and, after proper reflection, elect the person who, in that historical moment, they believe before God is fittest to continue the mission of the bishop of Rome.
The oath that every elector must pronounce before his vote binds him to this. As can be seen from the current rule of the Conclave (Ordo rituum Conclavis), published in 2000, the words of the oath are very solemn: «I call on Lord Christ, who will judge me, to witness that my vote is given to him who, according to God, I believe must be elected». I would like, for those who know Latin, to quote the original text of the oath: «Testor Christum Dominum … me eum eligere, quem, secundum Deum, iudico eligi debere».
In the 2005 conclave it was my task, as Subdean of the College of Cardinals, to ask the consent of the elected person. I well remember the emotion with which I addressed to him, in Latin, the ritual question: «Do you accept your election, done according to Canon Law, to Supreme Pontiff?».
A sense of inner joy inside pervaded us all as soon as the newly elected candidate pronounced his “fiat”. I asked him then: «With what name do you want to be called?». And his response was clear: «Vocabor Benedictus XVI», «I shall be called Benedict XVI».

Pope Benedict XVI, immediately after his election, greeting the crowd of faithful from the loggia of the Vatican Basilica, 19 April 2005

Pope Benedict XVI, immediately after his election, greeting the crowd of faithful from the loggia of the Vatican Basilica, 19 April 2005

An arcane design
From that moment he was Peter’s successor, the bishop chosen by Providence to lead the Church of Rome in charity. And what I as Subdean immediately said to him on behalf of those present: «Most Blessed Father, in this solemn hour, in which, by an arcane plan of Divine Providence, you have been elected to Peter’s Chair, before elevating our prayers unanimously to God and thanking Him for your election, it is well to remember the words with which our Lord Jesus Christ promised Peter and his successors the primacy of the apostolic office and of love».
We all then listened to the reading from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 16, 13-19, and then, after performing an act of homage and obedience to the new Pope, we began the Te Deum, glad to have been the instruments of Divine Providence in giving the Church a new pastor.

A joyous welcome
Of course, each pontiff is different from the others, as the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus were different. But immediately Christians, even in their pain for the loss of a pope they loved, have always greeted his successor with joy.
That has happened to me also, since 1939 when as a young student in the seminary in Asti, I heard the rector telling us of the death of the late lamented Pius XI. I had, too, had learned to love him, hearing him spoken of with admiration in my family and the parish. I was barely twelve but I already kept in my prayerbook a little picture of the Pope. For me, it wasn’t Achille Ratti who had died but simply the Pope.
With great joy, twenty days later, precisely 2 March of that same 1939, I heard the news of the election of Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli as supreme pontiff with the name of Pius XII.
It was the same with me also with the latter’s death on 9 October 1958. I had come to Rome to enter the service of the Holy See and a great sense of bewilderment invaded myself and many others at the loss. Shortly, however, already on 28 October, the College of Cardinals, inspired by Divine Providence, had given us the grace of the election as new pontiff of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the Blessed John XXIII.
Similar feelings, later when I was serving in the apostolic nunciature in Quito, in Ecuador, pervaded my mind at the death of Pope Roncalli and the election of Paul VI.
With the same feelings I experienced the deaths of Pope Paul VI and of John Paul I, as also the election of the late lamented John Paul II, while I was in service of the Holy See in Santiago, Chile.
Reconsidering those events, painful and then gladdening, I am still moved today, remembering the great sense of faith of our Christian people, scattered throughout the world. It is that sensus fidei that the Holy Spirit knows how to stir in the ecclesial community at every moment of its history.

The action of the Spirit
Thus it was with the election of Pope Benedict XVI also. From that day, he is no longer Joseph of Bavaria, but Peter of Galilee!
In reality, the Christian people know well that the Holy Spirit is always at work in the Church, vitalizing it and guiding it in the course of the centuries. In his first Epistle Peter the Apostle says that the Christians of the diaspora loved Christ «without having seen Him» (1Pt 1, 8). We could say as much today of the many believers throughout the world who love the Pope even though they have never seen him.
The great theologian Henri de Lubac, in his well- known book Méditations sur l’Église, deplored the fact that many scholars of the Roman pontificate perceived its human greatness only. Certainly, the papacy is a unique reality in the history of our civilization also. The faithful, however, in the light of the faith, are capable of getting to the essential: they know that every pope has been set in place by Divine Providence as visible rock of the unity of the Church and, thus, they honor him and follow him with love.

Benedict XVI celebrating Holy Mass in the Sistine Chapel, 20 April 2005

Benedict XVI celebrating Holy Mass in the Sistine Chapel, 20 April 2005

The new Pope
Two years ago the disciples of Christ hailed Benedict XVI with that attitude. As with a father, they press together round him, particularly at this moment in which he celebrates his eightieth birthday.
Jean Guitton, in the his well-known book Dialogues with Paul VI, confided to his readers that of all the dignities of a pope the most significant for him was that of the fatherhood, that radiates strength and calm before the world. He then remarked that it was not necessary that all the children know the father for him to be the father! In reality, this spiritual paternity has been a characteristic aspect of the recent supreme pontiffs, above all of Pope John Paul II of venerated memory, who so lavished himself on suffering humanity, as also to encourage peace and the progress of peoples.
And this, too, is an aspect of the current Successor to Peter. His “power”, in fact, is different from that of the authorities of this world, it is the authority of a father, an authority that creates unity and builds in charity.

An interrogative for all
This is, in brief, the attitude of believers to the Roman pontificate. But the existence of this institution can also constitute a stimulus to thinking for non-believers.
And nobody, in fact, could deny the existence of this reality, as nobody can deny the existence of the Alps or the Carpathians in the heart of Europe. The permanence, then, of the Catholic Church over the course of two thousand years of history cannot help but pose interrogatives to every analyst of human events. The responses may be varied, but for the believer there is a certainty that towers above all others: the Church has always grown in the course of the centuries and comes through all ordeals, because it is sustained by Divine Providence, that watches over its destiny.
Indeed, this Church believes firmly it shall last until the end of human history. For the believer, the secret lies in the promise made by Christ to his disciples and handed on to us by Saint Matthew in the last words of his Gospel (Mt 28, 20): «I will be with you always, down to the accomplishing of the centuries».

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