The recent Papal Conclave and installation of Pope Francis provided an opportunity to get back to writing another chapter in my life adventure. My take on the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is probably a little more intense than that of an average person, or even an average Catholic, for that matter. Having experienced Catholicism from an inside, institutional perspective during the early years of my lifetime, I had a tendency to pay a little more attention to the role of the Pope in Catholic life and to measure my personal life events against the backdrop of the Roman Papacy. And having traveled to Rome several times in my life and visited both St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel — both before and after the restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes there, you might find the answer to the question, “Joe, why are you so interested?” after reading this essay. So let me share my memories of the 8 Popes whose reigns paralleled the successive periods of my life.
The only Pope I have no memory of is the one who occupied the See of Peter when I was born in 1935, namely, Pope Pius XI, who reigned from 1922 till 1939. I was born in the 14th year of his 17-year pontificate, so he was Pope for only the first four years of my life. I remember seeing pictures of him during my school days, but my first ever recollection of a Pope is that of his successor.
Pope Pius XII – Eugenio Pachelli – 1939 – 1958
The first Pope I really remember was Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pachelli, who became Pope in 1939 and died in 1958, having reigned for 19 years, from my fourth till my 23rd birthday. His picture hung in many of my classrooms as I progressed through St. Nicholas grade and high school in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and he was Pope when I entered St. Francis Seminary, Staten Island, which I attended from 1952 to 1954, and through my Franciscan Novitiate in Middleburgh, NY through 1955 and on through my 2-year Philosophical and first year of Theological Seminary training at St. Anthony-on-Hudson, Rensselaer, NY. He died in 1958, as I entered the second year of Theology. That was a long 19 years, and through the most critical formative years of my life — grammar school, high-school and college. During the recent Conclave, I learned that one of the Cardinals on the short list for Pope also attended St.-Anthony-on-Hudson Seminary in Rensselaer for part of his seminary training a few years after I did. He was Cardinal Turkson of Ghana!
In addition to the portraits that hung in all Catholic institutions, I remember seeing him in numerous MovieTone News films that preceded Movies in theaters, as he met with world leaders, and conducted Holy Week and Christmas services in Rome (there was no television during most of his reign as Pope). I remember that he was referred to as “the prisoner of Rome” — because once he became Pope, he never traveled outside of Rome as modern Popes have. His portraits were very unique, almost always taken from the profile position, which accentuated his unusually shaped “Roman nose.”
Today, in my home, I have a special memento of Pope Pius XII. In 1958, the year in which he died, my Mom and Dad celebrated their 25th Wedding Anniversary (February 22nd). At the time, I was in the seminary, and I requested, through one of my Seminary Professors, Father Raphael Huber, who had served as a confessor at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, a Papal Blessing from Pope Pius XII to give my parents for their Anniversary. It as a very ornately decorated scroll, with a profile picture of Pope Pius XII, dated December 23, 1957 and issued by the Vatican.
Pope Pius XII became more or less the “standard” against whom I would judge all future Popes. I guess you could say he was the last of the typical Popes of the 20th century – Italian, traditional, low-keyed. He died on October 9, 1958 while I was in the Seminary at St. Anthony-on-Hudson in Rensselaer, NY. Because of his really long Papacy, the whole idea of a Conclave and selection of a new Pope was a novelty and uniquely monumental in the Church, especially since he was really the only Pope who I had ever experienced. There were some who challenged the way he dealt with Nazi Germany and the persecution of the Jews, but for the most part, he has been exonerated and commended for the many whose lives he and the Vatican saved during and right after the War. .
POPE JOHN XXIII – Angelo Roncalli – 1958-1963
The “sedes vacante” period between the death of Pius XII and Coronation of John XXIII was 19 days — a full week longer than the recent 13 day lag time between the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis. Roncalli was elected on the 11th ballot (on the 4th day of the Conclave) at the age of 77. Because of the number of ballots and his age, and the fact that he wasn’t one of the “popular” candidates, everyone considered him a compromise selection and an interim Pope. I personally was disappointed when I first saw him, hoping for a much younger, stylish and modern Pope. Little did I, nor anyone else, know how young in spirit he would turn out to be, and how much of a reformer he became, especially by summoning the Second Vatican Council, which opened in 1962, the year after I became a priest.
I was extremely interested in the Coronation Ceremony of the new Pope. Partly because of my love of history, and partly because of the fact that I have always been fascinated by ritualistic symbolism, there were several facets of the ceremony that dated back to the 14th century and that had only been performed for about 30 times in history that caught my attention. Three elements of the ceremony are no longer a part of the ritual — which makes me happy that I paid attention to them in 1958.
First, the ritual was called a “Coronation” back then. Today, it is referred to an “Installation Ceremony. The coronation consisted of the placing of the “Tiara” on the Pope’s head — the three-tiered, beehive-looking crown that was long the symbol of the Papacy. Pope John XXIII and his successor, Pope Paul VI, were the last two Popes to be “Crowned” using the Tiara. There are several interpretations of each of the three crowns, the most common being that one represents temporal power (over Vatican City), one, for the Bishop of Rome and one for his power over the Universal Church. There are other interpretations (for example, priest, king and prophet) but nonetheless, it was an interesting symbol. The Tiara was last used in 1968, when at the end of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI laid it on the altar of St. Peter’s as an act of humility, after donating the amount of its value to the poor. No Pope has used it since. One of the “used” papal tiaras was purchased by American Catholics and is on display in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.
Related to the opulence of the Tiara was the fact that the Pope was carried through St. Peter’s on the “Sedia Gestatoria,” that portable throne placed on the shoulders of tuxedo-clad men, or Swiss Guards and attended to by altar-boys bearing those huge feathered fans, ala Cleopatra. You haven’t seen a Pope on one of those for over 50 years.
And, finally, during the ceremony, as he processed through St. Peter’s on the “Sedia Gestatoria“, it stopped 3 times as the Papal Master of Ceremonies lit a piece of flax on a pole and, as it burned, held it before the Pope, reminding him “Sancte Pater, sic transit gloria mundi” (Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world”).
While I am really glad that I experienced these historic rituals which are no longer and never will be performed again, I am glad these elaborate trappings have been discontinued and I look forward to Pope Francis modifying some of the current ritual excesses in the modern church.
The story of how I experienced these rituals and remember them is worth telling. Not only was television relatively new in 1958, but as Seminarians, we had very little access to a TV. Neither did we have radios in our individual rooms, and since the events in Europe took place during the middle of our night, the only chance I had to experience the events surrounding the coronation of Pope John XXIII was by using earphones and a crude crystal set I had set up in my room. Even for a seminarian and radio nut, that was evidence of an extreme and unorthodox interest in the history of the Papacy. But there I was, at three or four in the morning on October 28, 1958, wide awake in my room in Rensselaer, NY, listening to a live broadcast from Vatican City of the Papal Coronation on my home-made crystal set.
Pope John XXIII got right down to business and called the Vatican Council, which, as a young priest, gave me new hope for the future of the Church. I followed the Council events in Rome and I read all the documents and declarations as they were published. I lectured on the Council to local parish organizations, and I even published an article in the prestigious Priest’s Journal, “The Homiletic and Pastoral Review” on “The 24 Seed Ideas of Vatican II” based on a series of lectures which I attended, given by John J. Wright, the Bishop of Pittsburgh. He was pleased with my summary and analysis of his series and endorsed its publication. He later became a Cardinal and was assigned to Rome. Ironically, it was he who five years later intervened with the Vatican for me to obtain my dispensation to leave the active Priesthood and marry.
I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on June 3, 1963 when I received the news that Pope John XXIII had died. I was at Kennywood Park, near Pittsburgh with several bus loads of Canevin High School students who were participating in “Canevin Day” at this popular amusement park which served the people of the Steel City. As Student Activities Director at this new Catholic Diocesan High School, I coordinated our annual school outing at Kennywood and participated in the event with the students.
After only five years as Pope, John XXIII had unleashed a major reform in the Catholic Church, called “aggiornameno” (updating) – and even though the Vatican Council was still in session, did much to bring about dramatic changes that continue to inspire successive Popes to re-think the mission of the Papacy and the role of the Catholic Church in society. This time, with the aid of Television, I was able to follow the events of the Pope’s funeral and the Conclave to select his successor. It was almost a foregone conclusion who that successor would be. In a Conclave that lasted three days and after 6 ballots Cardinal Montini of Milan, who became Pope Paul VI, was elected the 262nd successor of St. Peter, whose job would be to continue and complete the Second Vatican Council and to implement its decrees.
POPE PAUL VI – Giovanni Battista Montini – 1963-1978
Cardinal Montini really had his work laid out for him. First, at age 66, he inherited the Papacy from a very popular and relatively jolly predecessor. Montini didn’t have the buoyant personality that Roncalli had. He also had the daunting task of closing out the Vatican Council, which he did in 1965, and then implementing its decisions. The latter task would be very demanding.
He would be the last Pope to have a “Coronation;” the last to use the Tiara at his coronation, as he made the gesture of endorsing more simplicity for the Papacy by placing the Tiara on the altar of St. Peter’s at the formal closing of the Second Vatican Council in 1963, donating its value to the poor while he didn’t eliminate the possibility of future “coronations.” His successor, Pope John Paul I, voluntarily decided against coronation when he accepted the Papacy. Paul VI was also the last to use the sedia gestitoria at his coronation.
My personal connection with Pope Paul VI is that he was Pope during all but the first two years of my priesthood, and was the Pope whose name officially appears on my formal dispensation to marry within the Catholic Church, issued by the Vatican in 1970. He was the Pope when I married, and when Penny and I had each of our four children – not that it necessarily means anything — it is simply a historical fact.
When Pope Paul VI died on August 5, 1978 after 15 years in the Papacy, I was at the height of my career at Burlington County College, and living in Vincentown, New Jersey (where I still live). I don’t recall having paid as much attention to the Conclave of 1978 as I had earlier or have since.
POPE JOHN PAUL I – Albino Luciani – Aug. 26, 1978 – Sept. 28, 1978
“The September Pope”
The selection of Cardinal Albino Luciani as the 263rd Pope at age 66 gave us another opportunity to witness the historic transition ritual from one Pontiff to another. Little did we know that we’d be doing it again in a month. As I look back, I recall that we reacted to his smile, simplicity and humanity during the initial weeks of his Papacy as a refreshing change and we anticipated good things from him, much as we do of our new Pope Francis. For whatever reasons, that was not to be. His sudden death 33 days later on September 28th shocked the world — and spawned all those rumors about Vatican intrigue and espionage. However, the Holy Spirit apparently needed the time to prepare Karol Wojtyla for his long 27-year reign as “The People’s Pope.” God summoned the “September Pope” home prematurely after only one month – the last of the modern Italian Popes. Maybe the Holy Spirit simply wanted to provide a few “firsts” to the Guinness Book of Records: 1978 – the year of three Popes; John Paul I – one of the shortest Papacies in history and John Paul II, the second longest Papacy in history (27 years).
POPE JOHN PAUL II – Karol Jozef Wojtyla – 1978 – 2005
“Who? a POLISH Pope? It can’t be!” I still remember all the unbelief surrounding the announcement that we now had a Pope who was not an Italian — but not only that – he’s from Poland! I am glad I had the opportunity to live through the reign of John Paul II, the 264th Pope. He was only 58 when elected Pope and he served for 27 years, the second longest papacy in history. During his prime years, his visits to all parts of the world brought out the crowds and inspired youth to chant “John Paul Two – We Love You” to which he joyfully responded, “John Paul Two Loves You Too.”
John Paul II is the one Pope I can honestly say I “encountered,” – albeit from a bit of a distance. I refer to the fact that when he came to Philadelphia in 1979 – I was there on Broad Street, across from the Academy of Music as his Popemobile drove by on October 3, 1979. I was there, along with my wife, Penny, and two of my children, Kurt and Kerry. We waited patiently for several hours to witness the Popemobile whisk the waving and smiling Pope to the Cathedral and then to Logan Square for the Papal Mass, which we had the pleasure of attending. For me, it was a most memorable experience. I recall that as we rode to Philadelphia on the High Speed Line from Lindenwald Station, where we had parked our car, a woman on the train asked why we would want to take a day to do this — totally oblivious to the Catholic cultural and spiritual reasons which made me almost want to simply answer “Why not?”
We spent several hours standing at our post on Broad St. across from the Academy of Music until the Popemobile arrived.
I also have a vivid memory of the day that Pope John Paul II was shot by a would-be assassin in St. Peter’s Square. It was Wednesday, May 13, 1981. I was scheduled to meet with the Vice President of Burlington County College over lunch. When we arrived, we had each just learned the news about the assassination attempt on the Pope’s life.
The meeting was called because I had applied for the position of Director of Community Services at the College. Up until that time I had been the Division Chairman of Arts and Humanities and was ready for a change, having had my eye on the Community Services job which had recently been vacated. The VP set up the meeting to inform me that I had been selected for the position. I was elated, because I considered the job a major career move for me at the time Funny how we associate milestones with world events!
Four times during the papacy of Pope John XXIII I had the opportunity to travel to Rome
to see the places directly associated with the selection and installation of the Pope, principally The Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome and the Sistine Chapel. My first visit ever to Rome was in March of 1984. I was overwhelmed when I first entered St. Peter’s and recalled the images of previous Papal Coronations and Installations. More dramatically, when I first entered the Sistine Chapel, my emotions were on overload at being in the place where the Holy Spirit performed his periodic miracles of perpetuating the See of Peter in the persons of the Popes. This first visit was during the first phase of the restoration of the art work of Michelangelo on the ceiling of this magnificent Church. I visited again, 9 years later in 1993, and then again the following year, in December, 1994 with my son, Kris. The restoration work had been going on from 1980 – with the ceiling completed in December 1989, the Last Judgment in April, 1994. I was privileged in my lifetime to see the “before and after” views of Michelangelo’s great work – but during the early years, always with scaffolding in place.
I had a fourth opportunity to visit Rome, the Basilica of St. Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel on my “Grand Tour of Italy” in March of 1999. This time, they were finishing up the restoration of the wall frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. On December 11, 1999, Pope John Paul II “Unveiled” the complete restoration of the entire 3-phased restoration that took from 1980 to 1999. Michelangelo’s frescoes had finally been totally restored – the ceiling, the “Last Judgment”, and the wall murals – and they were like new renderings of the classical masterpieces. During the recent Conclave, the spectacular TV views of the frescoes in High Definition were almost better than seeing them “live.” As a “Pope-a-phile,” my opportunities to have visited these historic venues more than once made watching the recent Conclave on Television a double blessing.
During the 27 years of the Papacy of Pope John Paul II I was proud to say I was a Catholic as he did so much more than impact my Church. I agree strongly with the authors and commentators who attribute the collapse of the Communist empire to the influence and encouragement of Pope John Paul II, starting with the Solidarity Movement in Poland, to the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany and on through the dissolving of the Soviet Union, and everything in between.
This fact came home vividly during my recent pilgrimage to Eastern Europe, and most particularly, Poland, in October, 2012. On our visits to Krakow and Warsaw, images and statues of John Paul II peppered the landscape — in parks, on walls, in Churches, everywhere. He is already venerated as a Saint and the Polish people are rightfully proud of the fame of their favorite son. The Polish tour guides gushed in their praise for the Papacy of their native son and his contributions to destruction of Communism.
Several times during his waning years as Pope, as he became less and less mobile, I used to think to myself that it would be merciful if an ailing Pope could retire. Yet there is something to be said about the way John Paul carried on, doing whatever he could, despite his infirmities, serving as an example of how to deal with personal pain and suffering. Thankfully, his successor, Pope Benedict XVI has made it easier for future Popes to make the decision to step down if they feel incapable of fulfilling their responsibilities.
POPE BENEDICT XVI – Joseph Ratzinger – 2005-2013
Before he was elected Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger had a public reputation as being the “Pope’s Rottweiler,” alluding to his rather unbending application of Church doctrine and his German lock-step style of management. However, I feel that contrary to these predictions, he turned out to be a fairly gentle and sensitive leader of the Church. Although he was a bit stiff in demeanor, and a bit dull in personality, I would say he was the right man for the times (transitioning from John Paul II to Francis). I’ve read some of his writings, and admire him for his intelligence and spiritual insights. He was a true intellectual and I’m sure that much that he has written will guide the Church well into the future.
In November 2006 I had one more opportunity — my fifth – to visit Rome. This time, there were absolutely no scaffolds in the Sistine Chapel. I can never get enough of the splendor, the beauty and the history of the Eternal City. God willing, I may yet again get to see the Vatican and everything it represents for the Catholic Church. They say if you touch the foot of the bronze St. Peter in the front section of St. Peter’s you’ll someday return. I’ve done it five times so far, and may yet get a sixth such opportunity.
Because of his scholarship and erudition, Benedict XVI is the first Pope in modern times that I’ve heard mentioned as a possible candidate for elevation as a Doctor of the Church — in a class with St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. That’s quite a tribute. As far as I’m concerned, his best contribution to the modern Church was his decision to resign for the good of the Church for the reasons he gave. Hopefully his example will guide future Popes to know “when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.”
POPE FRANCIS – Jorge Bergoglio – March 2013
It’s a long way from a crystal set radio in the middle of an October night in 1958 to streaming video of the Conclave chimney on a computer, breaking news from the Vatican on TV and a dedicated Catholic Cable TV network called EWTN broadcasting live from the Sistine Chapel.. I saw more “insider” interviews, scenes of the conclave in action and politics among Cardinals than in any of my previous 7 Papal vigils. The ironic thing about this one is that the only guy who brought up Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as a possible Papal frontrunner was newsman Chris Cuomo on CBS.
Among the contenders, I was rooting for either Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston, mainly because of the good work he had done in cleaning up the clergy scandal in Boston and because he is a Franciscan and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, because of his association with the growing Church in Africa and the 2 degrees of separation between us based on the fact that each of us attended St. Anthony-on-Hudson Seminary near Albany, even though our paths had never crossed.
I sort of suspected a second day decision and had been actively following the predictions, deliberations and commentary on the Catholic Channel, EWTN (they did a good job throughout the three weeks of Vatican hype). So on Wednesday, the 13th of March, while at my desk at the County Library (don’t tell my boss), while I was, however, working on a county history project, I had the TV streaming video fixed on the Sistine Chapel smokestack, and a set of earphones tuned in to a live broadcast on EWTN Radio. As soon as the commentators mentioned that “it looks like white smoke” after the fifth ballot, I checked the computer screen to see the live feed. Of all five of my previous Pope watches, this was the closest I’d ever been to being there live – from white smoke right on through to first Papal Blessing.
What a surprise when a complete stranger walked out on that balcony after the announcement: “Habemus Papam!” — and what a delight! There was the name – FRANCIS!; the country – ARGENTINA; and the SMILE and the WAVE. The biggest surprise was the age — he’s only a year younger than I am. I really thought they’d go for a younger man — but now that I’ve seen him in action, and comparing him with how I feel about age now that I’m approaching 80 – I feel that it really doesn’t matter.
The most exciting things for me are Pope Francis’ affinity to St. Francis of Assisi and all that he stands for in Church reform, love of the poor, respect for nature, humility and simplicity. As a Franciscan myself, I have a deep appreciation for all that he stands for and have confidence that he will truly make a difference. Incidentally, he was ordained a priest in 1967, the same year that I left the priesthood (having been ordained six years earlier in 1961)
The other affinity I have to Pope Francis is his relationship to Latin America. Over my lifetime I have had numerous opportunities to see the Latin American Church in action. My most intimate connection is through the my service to the Church in Ecuador. I had the privilege of visiting Quito to do some volunteer work at St. Jude’s parish there, through a friendship with Fr. Bob Thomas and the Society of St. James quartered in Boston. My parish, Holy Eucharist in Tabernacle, NJ had a long “Sister Parish” partnership with St. Jude’s. My son, Kris, spent a month there as a volunteer in 1997. We got to see first-hand the vibrant spirit of the Latin American Church.
As a member of the Conventual Franciscans, many of my classmates and colleagues served in Costa Rica and Brazil, and some of my seminary classmates were from Costa Rica. I spent a summer as an exchange professor at The Catholic University of Puerto Rico in 1991, and also had the opportunity to visit Caracas, Venezuela and several locations in Peru in 2012. I experienced Latin American Poverty first-hand and have a sense of where Pope Francis gets his compassion for the poor and will hopefully be able to identify with the mission of our new Pope.
I guess I can hope for one more shot at Conclave watching, considering that Pope Francis and I are about the same age and I hope to be around a while longer. However, if you believe the prophecies of St. Malachy, it appears that Pope Francis will be the last Pope. If I might be given the liberty making my own prediction, based on the first days of his Papacy, I predict that Pope Francis will be the FIRST Pope of a new breed of charismatic Popes who will instill new life into the Church and bring renewed hope to the world. He said it best in one of his first addresses: The church is all about Truth, Beauty and Goodness – and should identify with the poor. That’s a pretty good mission statement.