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It is 8:01pm in Rome. (An incomparable time in The Eternal City.)

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We are all sede vacantists now.

Long live the Pope!

Yes, Benedict XVI is still Pontifex Maximus, even if not any longer Supreme Pontiff. Perhaps that makes him Pontifex Minimumus?

At any rate, he has but renounced the powers of the papacy, the governance of the Church of Rome. He does not, by so doing, automatically cease to be pope: the “papa” — father in Christ of the baptized. That is not something one gives up quite so easily. He did not make himself that, and much still depends on what the One will say who has had most to say about that to begin with.

And He hasn’t had the last word. Not yet, it is fair to suppose. Certainly not while Benedict XVI still breathes in Rome.

Which is why the rest of us may still refer to Benedict XVI as “Your Holiness”, or “Pontiff emeritus”. Indeed, not emeritus in the sense we (American speakers of English) normally mean when assigning the term, as to someone who has resigned an office and retains its title only.

Rather, emeritus in the almost passé, and now almost shockingly revived sense of “elder & venerable”.

No. His Holiness has not resigned. He has renounced the papacy. It is doubtful he has even abdicated, moot as the supposed distinction may seem. This is not to play on or with words. There is a ‘world of difference’ — however subtle to those of us who do not consider such things except for our own everyday, often selfish, purposes — between resigning a soldier’s post and renouncing an office in God’s service.

Put it this way. When was the last time you heard of a CEO on Wall Street or the Secretary of Defense “renouncing his office”?

“Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchesidek.” And not just ‘any old priest’. Tu es Petrus. A priest is one who makes sacrifice, for all or for many. Peter makes it for all the sheep. “Feed my lambs”, says the Lord Christ to him alone.

Think of it this way, turning about the first Pontiff’s dialogue of old with his clever Lord & Master:

Quo vadis Petre?
Romam vado iterum crucifigi.

Not even every renunciation of power is an abdication per se. True, it’s not every day that the difference needs to be applied. There are not enough kings anymore for pundits (like me!) to practice analyzing their last acts to become well-versed in such distinctions.

But when ZENIT reported years ago, on the occasion of the beatification of the Emperor Charles of Austria, that he had “abdicated the thrown” in 1922, they soon sent an apology and printed a retraction thanks to a reader who informed them that in fact His Imperial and Royal Highness had only “renounced” use of the imperial & royal powers. He had not abdicated. The saint was, by the grace of God, not quite capable of that … well, yes … sin.

He thereafter died finally in holy poverty, but first in humility: which is the ‘odor of sanctity’.

Not wishing to make too much of the difference, or to add more mystery to an already enigmatic development, but in a similar way, perhaps, can one say that Christ renounced the power of God when taking flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary without certainly ceasing to be God. He emptied himself, as St. Paul says. (More or less. Meaning, everything written in these lines of blog is either mere translation or vague approximation of the terms used by the Apostles in their original tongues and as passed down in the Greek and Latin manuscripts and oral traditions.)

“He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.” (Philippians ii, 8)

It has been some time since two popes have been alive at the same time.

What has happened — the enormity of Benedict XVI’s humility alone — will require some time, even years, to ponder. What it all means is likely to take much longer to understand.

What was almost unthinkable only weeks ago has been accomplished. And so quickly.

When Pope Pius XII noted his own failing health in the 1950s, he asked the young prelate of Genoa, Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, whether he would serve as regent for His Holiness. It is said that the Cardinal asked for a little time to think it over. (It was, after all, not something that even cardinals are asked every ‘blue moon’.)

The next day (or soon after in any event) came the answer.

“No, Your Holiness. The Church is not big enough for two popes.”

We’re now going to see tested the truth of that assertion under very different circumstances!

We live in interesting times, indeed.

While we pray for the health and salvation of Pope Benedict, and for the intentions of the upcoming conclave and future pope, let us also pray for God’s mercy for ourselves.

For some penetrating analysis of these events, see Dr. Robert Moynihan’s reports on the Inside the Vatican website and the blog.

P.S. If you don’t believe what is written above — and nobody could blame anyone at a time like this for disagreeing with any judgement of such unprecedented events — read and study the Pope’s own parting words. All his public remarks since the announcement of February 11 are found on the website of the Holy See, http://www.vatican.va.

By the way, it is worth visiting the site just to see the changes to it while sede vacante.

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