By Gregory L. Tracy
Today was the moment that everyone knew was coming: The time when we would have a Pope Emeritus and the Chair of Peter would be empty.
Early in the day, the entire College of Cardinals met with Pope Benedict in the final audience to wish him well and thank him for his ministry.
At 10:15 AM the US Cardinals, who are staying at the Pontifical North American College in this time for the conclave, boarded the bus that would take them there.
In the early afternoon, returning to the NAC for a chance to watch the departure of the helicopter that would take Pope Benedict into retirement from the unique vantage point of the school’s roof, I had an opportunity to watch as Cardinal Timothy Dolan conducted an interview with CNN.
I must say, it was odd to be watching Cardinal Dolan on the screen in the media center and then be able to walk outside and see the interview taking place in the courtyard.
Shortly after 4 PM, we went up to the roof of the NAC where there were already a small number of seminarians who had staked out positions to view this historic event. That number would soon grow to scores as the time grew closer.
Cardinal Dolan, undoubtedly knowing the wonderful view the roof had to offer, also joined us. He waded through the crowd, greeting priests and seminarians, seemingly unfazed by the swarm of reporters and news photographers that rushed to follow him.
Then at about 5 PM, as expected, the helicopter lifted off from the Vatican grounds eliciting cheers in waves from the seminarians. One held a sign that read “We’ll miss you” and others waved papal and American flags.
As the papal helicopter faded into the distance heading towards Castel Gandolfo, a group of seminarians sang wishing the Pope “Ad multos annos”!
In the evening Cardinals O’Malley, George and DiNardo participated in a press conference organized by the USCCB. Sister Marian Walsh, the USCCB’s director of media, open the exchange asking each of the Cardinals their reaction to the Pope’s retirement and what they had said to him when they had an opportunity to greet him one by one at the morning gathering.
- The audio of the press conference with the cardinals
For his part, Cardinal Sean said that “there was a sense of sadness saying farewell to this man who had been our spiritual father for these eight years”, but when he spoke to him, he assured the Pope that the people of Boston are praying for him, that they love him and are grateful for everything that he has done.
At 8 PM, I passed the gates of St. Peter’s Square just at the moment the bells chimed in the hour, marking the moment that the Chair of Peter became vacant.
Unlike the scene earlier in the afternoon with thousands of people waving cheering the scene at that moment was of only a few hundred in a somber vigil. Some held candles, others prayed but there was the kind of stillness and silence that one finds in significant moments, when words which seem to be just noise.
Most touching, perhaps, was that after a few minutes of the silence, slow measured applause began to spread through the crowd. No whistling or cheering, just soft handclapping. It seemed to be “bravo” to the Holy Father, whose job at that moment was done.
Gregory L. Tracy, managing editor of The Pilot, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, is writing from Rome.