One year ago, the See of Peter was vacant – sede vacante - and our Church was without a pope. Pope Benedict XVI had resigned on February 28th, and Pope Francis would be elected on March 13th. At this time last year, the Church’s cardinals were gathering in Rome, preparing for the conclave that would elect the 265th successor to St. Peter.
Before the conclave began, the cardinals met together to discuss the state of the Church. They gave short speeches, offering their perspective on the Church’s needs and her future. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who would become Pope Francis, gave one such speech.
At the heart of his exhortation, Cardinal Bergoglio told his brother cardinals that “to evangelize implies a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only in the geographic sense but also the existential peripheries; those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance, of doing without religion, of thought and of all misery.”
When I read those words, I was reminded of the homily with which Pope Benedict XVI began his petrine ministry in 2005.
“The pastor” he said, “must be inspired by Christ’s holy zeal: for him it is not a matter of indifference that so many people are living in the desert. And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life.”
Pope Benedict and Pope Francis knew that the mission of the Church is to go into a world which is hurting, which is often empty and alone in the poverty of isolation from God. Pope Benedict called this poverty a desert; Pope Francis calls it the periphery.
The Church has been blessed by an unbroken line of successors to St. Peter—each fulfilling the mandate of their office in the fullness of their own personalities. And we are so blessed to be formed by the way each pope leads the Church.
Often, we hear about the differences between each man who becomes the pope—in 2005, we heard that Pope Benedict was different from Blessed John Paul II; today we hear that Pope Francis is different from Pope Benedict.
I am struck more deeply by the continuity in the papacy than by the differences. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And, in thought, and life, and mission, so is the Church.
It is easier for us to notice the changes in the Church, or in the papacy, than it is to notice the similarities. Change is more apparent. For example, liturgy takes different forms in different times, and each pope brings his own style to his office. But what changes in the Church is cosmetic and accidental to our deepest identity.
The Church is constant in our faith in Jesus Christ, our dependence on the sacraments and the Word of God, and in the unfailing promise that the Holy Spirit leads the Church. Most of all, the Church is constant in our mission—to be evangelists for Jesus Christ, in every time, and every place.
I am grateful for the ministry of Pope Benedict XVI. He called me to the episcopal office and sent me to this great diocese of Lincoln. His humility, brilliance, and generosity brought souls to Jesus Christ.
And I am grateful for the ministry of Pope Francis. His openness, and courage, and pastoral kindness make disciples of the world. I am grateful for Blessed John Paul II, and for Blessed John XXIII, who will be canonized saints next month and, in fact, for all of the men who have led the Church as successors to St. Peter.
As we remember the resignation of Pope Benedict, and celebrate the first anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, let us pray for the men called to be successors of St. Peter. And let us thank God for the constancy and continuity of our holy mother, the Church. Above all, let us pray that we can serve the mission of the Church—to go to deserts, and peripheries, bringing Jesus Christ to every yearning soul.