In 2005, when the conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen to become Pope Benedict XVI, my journalist daughter and I happened to be in Italy.
We were touring the packed St. Peter’s Basilica when security guards began to round up the crowds and push them against the walls.
I was so mesmerized by the art and architecture — and more driven by curiosity, I confess, than by willingness to follow directions when I woke up to the commotion — that I didn’t react quickly enough.
And that’s how I found myself barely able to step out of the way of a contingent of cardinals in burgundy robes charging through the basilica with purpose and speed.
They were, I learned shortly after, part of the conclave of cardinals who, days later, would choose the 78-year-old German as the new pope.
It was quite a memorable moment to behold, even if we were part of the growing numbers of Americans estranged from the Catholic Church.
Despite the jokes that ensued for the rest of our trip about my near-tripping the holy, witnessing the reverence and respect for the historical moment in Italy made our trip all the more special.
This was, after all, the leader who would succeed the beloved Pope John Paul II, whose charisma won hearts when he visited Miami and Cuba. One of the stops on our visit was at his grave in St. Peter’s.
But in the aftermath of Pope Benedict’s abdication announcement, citing poor health — the first pontiff to leave office alive in six centuries — the tone of the times rings strikingly different, discordant.
Resigning Pope No Longer Has Strength To Lead Church Backward, headlined the satirical The Onion.
“From Twitter to Quitter,” commented Patricia Cregan Navarra, a professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, on a friend’s Facebook page.
She was referring to the move, strange for a pope who tried to revive the Latin Mass and promoted traditionalists to the Vatican hierarchy, to open a Twitter account last Dec. 12.
Sardonic references aside, some of us are rightly angry at the cover-ups of child abuse and the exclusion and “demonizing” of gays. We’re critical of the lack of parity between men and women in church governance, and reject the anti-contraceptive teachings.
While Catholic leaders like Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski don’t anticipate significant changes with new leadership, progressive Catholics and non-practicing Catholics — one out of 10 American Catholics has left the church — hope to see reform and modernization.
And by that, we don’t mean a Twitter account.
In seeking the voices of practicing Catholics at this crossroads, I was not surprised to find more reminiscence for Pope John Paul II than discussion of Pope Benedict XVI.
“You have to follow the path of John Paul, who said, ‘Do not be afraid, God is always with you’ ” José Ignacio Díaz-Gravier, a music teacher at Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Hialeah, told me. “I’m happy with the way things are, but would welcome changes inspired by the Holy Spirit. The winds of evil will not topple the church.”
But it is a church with a declining hold on followers, and so, the selection of a more-charismatic pope is probable. Many are pinning hopes on the Vatican striking an inspirational chord with innovative selections: the first black pope, the first Latin American, the first Canadian or the first American.
But, reform and renewal?
Probably less likely than the lightning that struck St. Peter’s Basilica — twice — mere hours after Pope Benedict XVI resigned.