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.